SD lawmakers face 'Petri dish' session, now with COVID-19

South Dakota lawmakers call it "Capitol crud," a nasty cough, sometimes shakes, or a fever fostered from 10 weeks of winter cooped up in a 110-plus-year-old Capitol with 105 members of South Dakota's citizen Legislature. But this year's session has a new, much deadlier bug that could be lurking the statehouse halls: COVID-19.

South Dakota's Capitol building. Matt Gade / Republic
South Dakota's Capitol building. Matt Gade / Republic
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Going to Pierre is a health risk in a normal year for South Dakota's legislators.

"The Legislature in its best time is a Petri dish of disease," Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck told Forum News Service in an interview on Tuesday. "I remember standing (in the chamber) and it sounded like I was in a tuberculosis ward with all the coughing."

It's "Capitol crud," say some legislators. A nasty cough, sometimes shakes, or a fever fostered from 10 weeks of winter cooped up in a 110-plus-year-old Capitol with 105 members of South Dakota's citizen Legislature from across the state.

Throw in speeches, button-holing with lobbyists, and glad-handing school kids on buses — and often passing a budget means coming home sick.

But this year's session has a new, much deadlier bug that could be lurking the statehouse halls: COVID-19.


This week, legislative leadership announced proposals — that will be taken up in procedural meetings this week — to mandate masks in the state Senate, with a mask recommendation in the House of Representatives.

RELATED: South Dakota House, Senate weigh differing COVID-19 protocols
Not all agree the precautions are needed.

"No, I don't support a mask mandate," said Rep. Tim Goodwin, a Republican representing mostly rural areas through the central and southern Black Hills. "I think we conduct our business as much as possible like we have in past years."

Virus has ravaged state, hit legislators

But while some legislators have cheered South Dakota's Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, who has largely bucked health experts' guidelines during a global pandemic by refusing to issue a statewide facial covering mandate that experts suggest could save lives, increasing numbers of lawmakers say they're not afraid to mask up.

Largely this is due to the virus's ravages across the state. According to Becker's Hospital Review, South Dakota has the seventh highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the nation, trailing only North Dakota and states in the densely populated northeast United States that bore the first wave of the illness in the U.S.

And for many headed to Pierre, the virus has hit home. This spring, Huron Rep. Bob Glanzer died from COVID-19 . In the Senate, Schoenbeck says nearly half of the members have reported having the dangerous illness associated with the coronavirus. And nearly everyone has a loved one or friend who has gotten ill.

Sen. Doug Bartels, a Republican and former Sioux Falls police chief, said he had the virus over Labor Day and it "put me out of commission for 10 days."

"My symptoms, fortunately, weren't too severe," Bartels said this week. "But they ain't nothing anywhere near what some people are going through."


Some vocal about mask plans

Increasingly, legislators are taking their concerns public.

Rep. Linda Duba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, according to reporting from the Argus Leader , wrote to legislative leadership expressing a desire to participate in the session remotely due to health concerns. "If North Dakota can do it so can we," Duba wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, Jan. 5, linking to a news story about North Dakota legislators working remotely this session.

Incoming Rep. Will Mortenson, a Pierre Republican, penned a November op-ed in The Capital Journal , promising, "I'll be wearing a mask to the Capitol when I report for duty. I may be a distinct minority in that decision. I will likely subject myself to furrowed brows or an occasional scoff, but I don't mind." Mortenson cited protecting the health of his wife and baby as his motivation for donning facial covering.

The precautions aren't unique to South Dakota. In addition to allowing remote work, legislators in neighboring North Dakota have also required masks for their session. So has Minnesota, where legislators were digitally sworn-in on Zoom last week.

And the prospect of staying indoors for long durations is increasingly less appealing, particularly as new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds over half of coronavirus cases are spread by people without any symptoms of COVID-19.

Still, South Dakota's legislative leadership, which had heretofore avoided any public decrees about masks, surprised some this week by announcing plans to require masks, at least in the Senate.

They also held out the possibility of remote participation "under certain circumstances and with leadership approval." A statement from LRC Director Reed Holwegner also encouraged remote testifying for witnesses at committee meetings.

Some precautions in place

Legislators closer to the granular work of enacting the session's agenda say they are in fact taking precautions.


Sen. Jean Hunhoff, a former nurse and the longest-serving legislator, sits atop the Senate Appropriations Committee that could spend hundreds of millions of dollars in one-time money this year thanks to federal influx of dollars due to COVID-19 relief packages passed by Congress.

Hunhoff, a Republican from Yankton, says she'll ask members in her committee to wear masks: "We will have social distancing in our room, and any (member of the) public or lobbyist will be mandated to wear masks, and they'll also be responsible for cleaning up (their chair or dais) with disinfectant."

Reached at home this week, preparing to leave for Pierre, Bartels said he was fortunate to land a desk in a single row. He's also heartened to hear plastic glass barriers have been installed at the chambers' galleries. And he hopes there'll be fewer trips from bus-loads of kids.

"(I'm worried) probably more so from groups more than anything," said Bartels. "The one thing about Pierre, you've got somebody from literally every corner of the state, so if one person gets sick and one person gets infected ... we all go home on the weekends and spread it across the state."

One upside: Bartels said he didn't plan on quarantining when returning at home on weekends as his wife — a health care employee —has already received a vaccine.

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