Lawmakers push flexibility amid pandemic as many forgo masks
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers on Wednesday finalized rules aimed at pushing the session forward amid the pandemic, but acknowledged that their plans to meet in Pierre could be upended by the virus.
As the session reached its second day, the state Capitol was marked by close-quartered conversations, many lawmakers without masks and concerns about what a virus outbreak would mean for the process of forming the state’s laws and budget.
Lawmakers nationwide have struggled to control the virus among their ranks, with members of the U.S. Congress reporting virus infections after the U.S. Capitol attack put them in close quarters with colleagues who refused to wear masks.
In Pierre, one of the Legislature’s first tasks was amending rules to allow for flexibility during the pandemic. Committees of lawmakers debated protocols on suspending meetings if outbreaks spread quickly, when to allow members to participate remotely and requirements on wearing face coverings.
“This is going to be a day-to-day, this is going to be rolling with the punches,” said House Speaker Spencer Gosch, a Republican from Glenham.
Proposed House rules don’t mention masks. Instead, posted signs encourage them on the House floor, though many Republican lawmakers did not heed that admonition. Gosch said state statutes make it difficult to enforce rules on legislators wearing masks.
But the Senate has taken stronger steps to push wearing masks, with legislative leaders proposing rules that say they are “expected” for lawmakers in Senate chambers and required for everyone else. Both chambers are expected to vote on their respective proposed rules in the coming days.
Senate Pro Tem Lee Schoenbeck said he told his fellow Republicans, “we’ve just got to be kind for two months,” to encourage them to take virus precautions.
Schoenbeck, a Republican from Watertown, acklowledged the risk of holding an in-person session, saying, “If one of my friends in the Senate ends up on a vent, we’re going home.”
The state has seen its average number of virus cases reported each day level off over the last two weeks at about 400 cases a day, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. The Department of Health on Wednesday reported 452 new cases, as well as 19 deaths from the virus. The new virus deaths brought the overall death toll to 1,604 people.
Schoenbeck also said that an outbreak among legislative staff, who do the grind work of writing bills, taking minutes and organizing the day-to-day work of lawmakers, could threaten to cripple the session.
Other Republicans remained less concerned about the virus or wearing masks, saying that the virus had already hit enough people that it was likely infections would spread slowly.
Reps. Arch Beal and Rebecca Reimer, both Republicans, chatted on the House floor while their masks sat unused on their side-by-side desks. Both espoused taking vitamins to ward off serious illness from the virus and said they would wear masks when around others who wore them.
“I feel that if I’m going to get it, I’m going to get it,” Beal said. “I’m not going to play games with masks.”
But Democrats, who hold just 11 seats in the statehouse, charged that Republicans were not doing enough to accomodate for the virus and that the conditions at the Capitol violate recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They were unsuccessful in a push for rules that would allow lawmakers to participate remotely if a doctor recommended it.
“We’re forcing people who represent their constituents to work in an unsafe environment and that’s wrong,” said Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat. “Frankly, we haven’t taken it seriously here in the South Dakota Capitol.”