Lawmakers head into second year dealing with COVID-19 pandemic during session

KELOLAND.com Original

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The plexiglass is now gone from the House and Senate chambers at the South Dakota state capitol, but the COVID-19 pandemic continues to loom as lawmakers across the state will gather for 38 days during the 97th Legislative session. 

As current South Dakota COVID-19 hospitalization counts rose to 315 alongside record active COVID-19 case counts and positivity rates, lawmakers, staff, dignitaries, lobbyists, journalists and members of the public filled the House chambers to hear Gov. Kristi Noem give her State of the State address. 

Ahead of this year’s session, there are no COVID-19 protocols in either the House or Senate chambers and people wearing masks are far and few between. This could be the new normal according to Senate President Pro Tem Lee Schoenbeck (R-Watertown). 

Last year, Schoenbeck supported COVID-19 protocols in the Senate chambers where masks were expected, gallery seating was limited and personal protective equipment was made available for members and staff. Masks were encouraged and mainly optional in the House last year.   

A year later, Schoenbeck reflected on how lawmakers made it through the full session. He said South Dakota had the most normal legislative session in the country last year, adding Wyoming lawmakers only met in person one day and went home. 

He did admit many members of the Senate had already contracted COVID-19 before the session last year, but pointed out no members of the Senate had positive COVID-19 cases during the session. 

“Half of us had it before we got here, so that’s probably one of the reasons,” Schoenbeck told KELOLAND News on Tuesday. “At this point, you can get the vaccine, you can not get the vaccine, but you have options. I think now it’s up to individuals to decide how well they want to protect themselves.” 

Last year, Rep. Linda Duba (D-Sioux Falls) debated not attending the legislative session because of the pandemic. Fast forward another year, she still believes lawmakers should be taking more precautions against COVID-19 during the session. 

“We’ve got hot spots in every county but we’re leaving this up to individuals,” Duba said. “Do we need to close down businesses? No. But we need to be smart and think about wearing masks. We need to think about others besides ourselves.” 

On the left, the Senate chambers in Jan. 2022 with no plexiglass dividers. On the right, the Senate chambers in in Jan. 2021 without plexiglass dividers.

The latest community spread map for the South Dakota Department of Health shows all 66 counties are experiencing high community spread. 

“Infection rates are up. I think we’re gonna see a breakthrough infection on the floor of the House, possibly in the Senate,” said Duba, who added she’s had heart issues in the past. “I know that I’m doing everything I can to be personally safe.” 

Duba said she’ll keep wearing masks and follow mitigation measures from public health officials. 

“I’m concerned, but I need to come here to do my job,” Duba said. 

In February last year, Duba was one of 17 house members working remotely after she was exposed to one of the eight lawmakers who tested positive. All 17 members received permission from house leadership to work from home. 

One of those lawmakers who ended up testing positive was Rep. Will Mortenson (R-Pierre). He made a full recovery, but Mortenson said he felt awfully sick after contracting the disease. This year, he’s fully vaccinated and boosted, and added lawmakers will “soldier on just like businesses and schools are.” 

“I hope that this is not the new normal,” Mortensen said. “I hope we get past COVID to a more substantial degree than we are right now.”

Taking the pandemic ‘day-by-day’

In Tuesday’s speech, Noem mentioned COVID-19 a handful of times. She highlighted how the state will be offering more free at-home testing. She also announced she’ll look to make the COVID-19 vaccine a choice. She mentioned she’ll be looking to sign legislation to make medical or religious exemption to COVID-19 vaccines stronger and recognize natural immunity. 

Noem said “we chose freedom and personal responsibility over mandates and lockdowns” and highlighted how she supported trusting people to make decisions that were best for them and their families.

That trust was on full display in the capitol Tuesday as only a handful of people wore masks inside the building. Members of the Legislative Research Council continue to wear masks during the legislative session and many of the 11 Democrats wore masks during Noem’s speech. 

Lee Strubinger works as a reporter with South Dakota Public Broadcasting during the legislative session. He said business is carrying on like any other year and he’s trying to do what’s best for him.

“I think that’s what everyone in this building is doing,” said Strubinger, adding he wears a mask as an extra precaution in hopes of not getting sick during the session. “I just take it day-by-day.” 

Last year, one lobbyist explained how different interactions were doing the legislative session.

During the early days of the pandemic, the legislature met during a marathon virtual session to discuss possible emergency powers and finish the final business from the 95th session. One lawmaker, Rep. Bob Glanzer — a Huron Republican — was one of the first South Dakotans to get COVID-19 and die. There’s been 2,528 COVID-19 deaths in South Dakota since the start of the pandemic.

With the emergence of the Omicron variant ahead of the 2022 session, Schoenbeck said he believes COVID-19 will continue to be around and possibility impact future legislative sessions. 

“The public expects us to get their work done,” Schoenbeck said. “We just got to be kind to each other, we really do.”

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