MINOT, N.D. — Last week I wrote about the potential for a political donnybrook over a potential mask mandate at the Legislature next year.
That drama will play out in the Legislature's rules committees, but already this week we have some drama over masking at caucus organizational meetings.
With the election come and gone, North Dakota lawmakers are beginning the process of organizing themselves for the next legislative session which commences in January.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which is both severe here in North Dakota and showing few signs of abating, adds an extra degree of complexity to that process.
One of the first steps lawmakers must take is electing the leadership of their partisan caucuses. To that end, the House Republican Caucus has scheduled a reorganization meeting in Bismarck on November 11 at leadership positions such as Speaker of the House, Majority Leader, and other caucus business will be attended to.
Typically, to vote at these meetings, attendance is mandatory. This year the caucus changed the rules to allow for remote attendance and voting (an allowance that's expected when the full Legislature meets next year). They also implemented a requirement for masks in accordance with the City of Bismarck's local ordinance.
"Face masks are required for all members attending the meeting physically in person as mandated by the Bismarck Pandemic Mitigation Strategy dated October 27, 2020," the meeting notice, sent out by Rep. Shannon Roers Jones (R-Fargo) states. "No one will be admitted to the meeting without wearing a face mask. Anyone who removes a face mask after entering the meeting room will be required to leave the meeting."
Two of the lawmakers in the caucus, both members of the controversial Bastiat Caucus, are objecting to these accommodations.
Particularly the mask mandate.
Rep. Dan Ruby, a Republican from Minot and the current head of the Bastiat Caucus, argued in an email responding to Rep. Roers Jones, and obtained by me from another member of the caucus, that if masks are mandated then there should be no allowance for remote voting.
"There was no vote to require masks for those attending in person. The remote voting was to protect those who felt their health may be in danger. If a mask requirement is part of this process then we should rescind the ability to vote remotely," he wrote.
He also suggested that Republicans should ignore Bismarck's masking ordinance since there were no legal consequences for doing so.
"As for the Bismarck City Mandate, there are no penalties for not wearing one. There is an exception for medical reasons but it is likely against HIPA laws to ask someone to prove their medical condition," he wrote. "I also know for a fact that some of our members have already had the virus so they are in no danger of contracting it or passing it to someone else. It makes no sense to require them to wear a mask. If you’re concerned about people who are asymptomatic, the WHO said that it is rare that those people can transmit the virus."
"I plan to attend the meeting in person but I do not intend to wear a mask," he continued. "I respect anyone who feels more comfortable wearing one and I will respect social distancing to anyone that doesn’t want to get within 6’ of me but to force me to wear a mask after providing remote voting to those who might be vulnerable doesn’t make sense to me."
Rep. Jeff Hoverson, another Republican from Minot and Bastiat Caucus member, echoed Ruby's opposition to masking in his own email.
"A mask mandate makes sense if it is based on true facts backed up by solid science," he wrote. "ND dept of health has already stated there are no RCT studies backing up the mask. There are plenty that show they are a false security for reducing viral spread. As legislators, I would prefer to research and base on truth [sic], not follow blindly along the fear that causes over reaction."
"Those who need to mask should be remote," Hoverson continued, suggesting that the meeting could also be moved away from Bismarck to get around the city's ordinance.
It's not clear at this point how House Republicans will handle members of their caucus who refuse to abide by masking rules at legislative meetings, but it's a preview of the headaches that could emerge at the legislative session as well.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com.