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South Dakota's Capitol, where a baseball cap, not failure to mask, gets a finger-wagging

Welcome to the South Dakota Capitol, where COVID-19 has appeared and could reappear, where Gov. Kristi Noem told a crowded joint session of around 100 legislators on Tuesday (some sat in their offices, at least one was home in quarantine) that 'our visitor inquiries have skyrocketed' due to her rejection of draconian lock-downs, and where on a winter's afternoon antique etiquette codes, but not public health measures, receive chiding. Staff and some legislators say it didn't have to be this way.

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Rep. Taffy Howard, Republican from Rapid City, listens to testimony as the South Dakota Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee meets at the state Capitol on Thurs., Jan 14. Christopher Vondracek/Forum News Service
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PIERRE, SD -- A Capitol security officer strolled through the South Dakota State House gallery minutes before the annual "State of the Tribes" address on Thursday, Jan. 14, and tapped the man who'd driven down from Standing Rock on the shoulder.

The visitor was wearing a mask. But he needed to remove his baseball cap.

Then the capitol staff, who wasn't wearing a mask, even though it's "recommended" by signs pasted all over Capitol doors, walked out, passing numerous unmasked visitors and legislators.

Everything was shipshape.

Welcome to the South Dakota Capitol, where COVID-19 has appeared and could reappear, where the state's governor told a crowded joint session of about 100 legislators on Tuesday (some sat in their offices, at least one was home in quarantine) that "our visitor inquiries have skyrocketed" due to her rejection of draconian lock-downs, and where on a winter's afternoon antique etiquette codes, but not public health measures, receive chiding.

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'Like urinating in the deep end of the pool'

Staff and legislators say it didn't have to be this way.

Long-shot efforts to add additional health protocols , more like epidemiological bumper lanes, for the 10-week session reached an anti-climactic, parliamentary demise in a committee meeting on Wednesday morning. In a joint Legislative Procedure Committee, Sen. Minority Leader Sen. Troy Heinert , a rancher, Democrat and citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, sought to apply Senate rules that require masks to all joint sessions .

Heinert acknowledged there weren't many joint sessions left, including a memorial service for legislators who died in the past year, including one due to COVID-19 .

"I understand that the House and Senate have different approaches," Heinert said. "But that's kind of to me, like urinating in the deep end of the pool and thinking it's going to stay there."

Republican leadership nodded understandingly.

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The South Dakota Legislature's Joint Committee on Appropriations on Thur., Jan. 14 at the State House in Pierre. Masks are required in the state senate, but only recommended in the state house. In joint committees and sessions, the house's rules prevail. Christopher Vondracek/Forum News Service

Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck , a Watertown Republican and attorney who has already had COVID-19, assured mask proponents, "I think your heart's in the right place."

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House Speaker Spencer Gosch , a Mobridge Republican who tidily wipes every microphone he uses with Lysol but doesn't wear a mask when presiding from the dais, leveled with Heinert that he didn't think requiring the Senate rules could get the House's approval.

"This rule hasn't been proposed to our members," admitted Gosch. "I don't even know if I can comfortably say how it would be received."

The motion lost 12-2.

Cavalier attitude rules on COVID-19

So goes the topsy turvy rules in a state that has topped every other state in the nation -- save for those in the early hard-hit Northeast -- in high fatality rates due to a virus that a columnist from the Black Hills told The Wall Street Journal in April would likely spare the state as "social distancing comes naturally in South Dakota."

Various "way of life" arguments -- one legislator told Forum News Service "we're just not steering around it, just plowing through" -- have already been trotted out this session. On Wednesday, Steven Jensen , the state's new state Supreme Court chief justice, congratulated lawmakers that while other court systems cancelled trials, "our courts held jury trials and court trials every month in 2020."

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Visitors in the House chamber gallery look on as Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Mike Faith presents the 6th annual "State of the Tribes" address in the South Dakota Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 14. Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

A social calendar disseminated by the state chamber of commerce shows fewer events, but many are still going forward at restaurants and hotel ballrooms and bars. And the cavalier attitude rubs off on others, from the maskless janitors and State Patrol officers working the capitol to the broad-shouldered, but maskless intern who slapped hands with the older legislator on the House floor prior to Gov. Kristi Noem's speech on Tuesday.

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Many defenders of the approach, when pressed, allude vaguely to "herd immunity." By latest account, over half of the state Senate has already contracted COVID-19 . But critics will point out that barring the potential to re-infect, there is no "previously infected" exception to mask rules at businesses in Pierre, from Lynn's Dakotamart to the Wal-Mart , where masks are more uniformly worn than at the state house.

Even in Pierre, though, compliance is shaky. On Tuesday, Noem appeared nationally on "Fox & Friends" (she has yet to give a local press conference this week to State House media) with former Wisconsin congressman Sean Duffy , who told anchor Ainsley Earhardt his children were elated to eat out without wearing masks.

"This is what freedom looks like in South Dakota with a great governor," said Duffy. "The kids were amazed they got to go to a restaurant without a mask."

'Mask-it or casket'

It's this bonhomie of mask emancipation that grinds on some legislators.

"Mask-it or casket, as my daughter says," Rep. Linda Duba , a Sioux Falls Democrat, said Thursday. Duba says she'll give a floor speech objecting to the house's rules when they're voted on next week.

"I'm gonna talk a little bit about facts," Duba said, "about the facts of asymptomatic carriers, about why masks are important, about people who have preexisting conditions or comorbidities and this is really what we should be doing. I'm just going to do it. Because I'm really disappointed."

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Sioux Falls Rep. Linda Duba wears a mask and face-shield in the Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee on Thur., Jan. 14 in the State House in Pierre, S.D. To her left is Rep. Randy Gross, of Elkton. Christopher Vondracek/Forum News Service

She's not the only legislator who feels this way. Nor is it only her colleagues in the miniscule (11 of 105 legislators) Democrat caucus. In addition to almost all of the 30-plus Senate Republicans, some House Republicans masked up, as well, including newcomers Rep. Will Mortenson , of Pierre, Rep. Sydney Davi s of rural Burbank and Rep. Lana Greenfield of Doland, plus many more.

During a song from a Standing Rock drum group before Thursday's tribal address, roughly 40% of legislators in attendance wore masks, which are required for state staff.

Some legislators continue to use anecdotal baselines for when they'd shift to a remote session.

"If a staff member or legislator goes on a ventilator," said one legislator, who asked not to use his name. "That's when we'll do an about-face."

If there is a super-spreader event, few culprits will be as likely as the Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee, which meets daily for hours in a boardroom on the Capitol's third floor. During an address from public safety officials on Thursday, five of the 20 wore masks. Chair Sen. Jean Hunhoff , a Yankton Republican and former nurse, wore a mask. She'd said last week she'd require them in her meetings.

"I am asking the members to wear masks," said Hunhoff, a week ago . "I can't mandate it."

A sign asked as much on the door. But many passed right by.

Hope in vaccines?

Maybe lawmakers, like the public in the state, are placing hopes in vaccines. South Dakotans have led the nation in inoculations, a football spike of sorts for some state officials. But full immunity (likely higher than 80% of the population already contracting the virus or taking the vaccine) was still months away from this Thursday morning Joint Appropriations Committee meeting. Coincidentally, the topic was safety.

"We want to prevent a major disaster," said Department of Public Safety Secretary Craig Price , who spoke about threats to school safety.

Everyone around the room nodded, concernedly. They all wanted the best for their kids. Safe schools, safe communities has never been a contentious debate in this family forward state.

And then Sioux Falls Rep. Steve Haugaard walked in, putting the total number of mask-wearers to less than a third. All the other rules on the door, though, were being followed.

No chewing gum.

No talking on the phone.

No hats.

And masks, if you want them.

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