Statewide mask mandate debate comes to the South Dakota Legislature

KELOLAND.com Original

Coronavirus test concept. Test tubes for 2019-nCoV analysis and medical form Coronavirus test over laboratory desk. Chinese Wuhan virus outbreak.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — It took 12 days, but the debate over a statewide mask mandate has come to the South Dakota Legislature. 

Sen. Reynold Nesiba (D-Sioux Falls) proposed Senate Bill 125, which would “require the wearing of face coverings in the state under certain conditions.” Nesiba announced his proposal on Twitter Wednesday night and said his bill is nearly identical to the mask requirement already in effect in the city of Sioux Falls until March. 

On Thursday, in news conferences with Republican leadership, Democratic leadership and Gov. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), masks, mask effectiveness and SB 125 were all discussed. 

Sen. Reynold Nesiba on Thursday.

“Life is sacred,” Nesiba said Thursday while pointing out South Dakota’s COVID-19 death toll of 1,763. “That’s way too many moms and dads, husbands and wives, grandmas, grandpas, families, friends all lost to COVID. We have not seen leadership from the executive branch of this state.”  

Nesiba said he introduced SB 125 on the request of many citizens and businesses, emphasizing the wording is very similar to city mask ordinances in place in Brookings, Sioux Falls and Yankton. 

“It’s temporary. It doesn’t apply to churches and there’s no penalty,” Nesiba said. “We know that masks are effective and an inexpensive tool that contribute tremendously to limiting the spread of this virus.” 

The South Dakota State Medical Association told KELOLAND News it would support SB 125.

KELOLAND News also reached out to the Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken to see if he would support SB 125. In past news conferences, Mayor TenHaken has said he’d like to see a statewide response with masks. TenHaken pointed to declining COVID numbers for his reason to support local control.

“COVID case counts and hospitalizations across the state are trending downward. Given these trends, I believe the best approach is for local governments to do what they feel is best for their individual communities,” TenHaken said in a statement to KELOLAND News. “In Sioux Falls we urge individuals to continue to follow the mitigation efforts that have been recommended, including wearing a mask, social distancing, and receiving the vaccine when it’s your turn.”

As of Thursday, South Dakota has 3,137 active coronavirus cases, 161 current hospitalizations and has administered a COVID-19 vaccine to 63,248 persons. Nesiba said SB 125 would help the state get through the vaccination period.  

“We can look forward to a fall with more of us actually being there,” Nesiba said. “We take care of our neighbors in South Dakota and this is one more way to do it.” 

Of South Dakota’s 10 largest cities, six have passed some sort of mask ordinance with Rapid City, Aberdeen, Pierre and Spearfish never passing some sort of mask requirement. Brookings was the first community in South Dakota to pass a mask ordinance and has had the lowest cases per population and lowest deaths per population.  

Mitchell passed a mask ordinance in November but it expired Wednesday. 

Nesiba said changing people’s behavior is hard to accomplish at the local level. He said that’s why statewide leadership is needed with masks. 

“You saw the push back in Sioux Falls and Brookings and Rapid City,” Nesiba said. “Those who would like to have local control are being impeded because of the absence of leadership at the state level.”  

SB 125 is awaiting a committee assignment and a hearing date. 

Gov. Noem, Republican leadership tout “personal responsibility” 

In an interview with Face the Nation, former White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx criticized states without mask mandates and specifically pointed to South Dakota saying the Sturgis Rally “was not OK.” 

Gov. Noem was asked about Birx’s comments Thursday and she touted South Dakota’s COVID-19 response. She said from the start of the pandemic, South Dakota has followed the science, data and facts and allowed for personal responsibility. 

“In South Dakota, overwhelmingly, people banded together, worked together to protect our health but also make sure we protected our way of life too,” Noem said.  

While Gov. Noem did not specifically mention SB 125, Republican leaders in both the House and Senate were quick in backing the Governor’s COVID-19 response and dismissing SB 125. 

Senate Majority Leader Gary Cammack said South Dakota has a history of “personal responsibility.” He said a mandate is about telling people what to do instead of educating them on different actions.  

Sen. Gary Cammack.

“I’m not in favor of a mandate,” Cammack said. “When it is all said and done, I think it’ll prove we took the right path.” 

House Majority Leader Kent Peterson (R-Salem) said a mask mandate bill “would not have legs in the house.” 

Cammack said the mask requirement in effect in Sioux Falls is “a strong suggestion and that’s the way it should be.” 

South Dakota State Medical Association supporting SB 125 

While few Republicans in Pierre showed support for the statewide mask mandate, the South Dakota State Medical Association Board of Directors voted Wednesday to support SB 125. 

The SDSMA is an organization of physicians, residents and medical students “who are all dedicated to protecting the health care interests of patients and enhancing the effectiveness of physicians throughout South Dakota.”

In July, SDSMA disagreed with Gov. Noem’s decision to not recommend school districts require masks for students and encouraged school districts to follow CDC guidance on masks. 

In October, SDSMA led the campaign “Mask Up South Dakota.” 

In November, SDSMA started supporting a statewide mandate after COVID-19 numbers were “escalating.” 

Democratic lawmaker support locally, nationally  

Sen. Troy Heinert (D-Mission) said Indian Reservations in South Dakota have had mask mandates in place and it helped slow the spread of COVID-19 on each reservation. 

“We know what a no mask mandate looks like,” Heinert said. “If we continue to go down this road, it’s just going to continue to prolong this.” 

Rep. Erin Healy (D-Sioux Falls) pointed out there’s now COVID-19 variants that spread easier and are deadlier. She said a statewide mask mandate would help South Dakota combat those from spreading in the state.  

President Joe Biden has called wearing masks “patriotic.” He signed an executive order shortly after taking office requiring all federal employees and people working in federal buildings and lands to wear masks. 

He administration is working to encourage masking across America.

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