BISMARCK — The North Dakota House of Representatives and Senate have passed mask mandates on their own members for the upcoming legislative session despite opposition from some Republican lawmakers.
The two chambers on Thursday, Dec. 3, approved via voice votes a mask rule for lawmakers, lobbyists, reporters and members of the public in legislative-controlled areas of the state Capitol in Bismarck.
The rule means lawmakers must wear masks or face shields while on the chamber floors but not during committee meetings where six feet of distancing will be possible. The requirement will take effect on Jan. 4 when the Legislature meets for the first day of its regular session.
Republican leaders in both chambers backed the rule, saying widespread mask-wearing in the Capitol will allow the 141 members of the House and Senate to do "the work of the people."
Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, presented the mask rule and said lawmakers have to maneuver the pandemic while keeping themselves, their families and legislative staff safe. Weisz said he had been in contact with more people during the three-day organizational session than he had been during the entire rest of the pandemic, and wearing a mask could help them complete the legislative session without major interruptions.
The proposal generated some opposition from far-right members of the party, including Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck, who founded the ultra-conservative Bastiat Caucus. In the end, there was no discussion of the rules on the House or Senate floor.
Lawmakers who violate the mask requirement could be punished for contempt or disorderly conduct, which could include a Class A misdemeanor and a maximum penalty of one year behind bars, a $3,000 fine or both, according to a memo from Legislative Council.
Weisz noted the rules committees could come back and change the requirements during next year's session if pandemic conditions change.
Other rules passed mean lawmakers will undergo temperature checks upon entering the building, but rapid COVID-19 tests will not be required as originally proposed.
Lawmakers who don't feel comfortable showing up to the session in person or wearing a mask can attend meetings virtually via Microsoft Teams.
But Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, also stressed that he wants his members physically present for the whole session. Unless they have tested positive for the virus or are quarantining because of exposure to the virus, "we expect you to be here," he said.
The entire state already has a mask requirement in public areas until at least Dec. 13, and violators could be cited for an infraction and fined $1,000.
Forum reporter Adam Willis contributed to this report.