PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The Capitol in Pierre is a busy place during the legislative session with 105 lawmakers, dozens of lobbyists, legislative staff, high school pages and journalists filling the building each legislative day.
For one former lawmaker and now longtime lobbyist, the 2021 legislative session so far has been very similar to prior years with a few noticeable differences. With at least eight reported cases of COVID-19 among lawmakers and one reported case for a lobbyist, pandemic precautions were heighted as session resumed for Day 22 on Tuesday.
Deb Fischer-Clemens, Senior Vice President Public Policy and registered lobbyist for Avera Health since 2002, said there were definitely fewer people at the Capitol Tuesday.
“There’s no doubt about it,” she told KELOLAND News Tuesday. “It was very evident there were way less people around.”
Before becoming a lobbyist for Avera, Fischer-Clemens served in the legislature for six years and said she’s always temporarily moved to Pierre during session. She said this year she’s spent less time at the Capitol during the afternoon and she’s always trying to follow COVID-19 guidelines as best as she can.
“I feel safe in the sense that I am being very, very careful,” Fischer-Clemens said. “I wear a mask all the time. I make sure I maintain my six-foot distance as much as I can. I encourage others to wear a mask and take the same precautions.”
Fischer-Clemens said she carries extra masks with her and has had to give them to other lobbyists during the session. She said when she is closer than 6-feet with people, she keeps track of how long she’s in close contact.
“If I am getting over five minutes of time with someone, especially someone who does not have a mask on, I’m backing up, trying to end the conversation,” said Fischer-Clemens, who noted she has a background as a nurse. “I feel like as a nurse, I need to set and example.”
For lobbyists, Fischer-Clemens said the vital in-person connection has changed some this year because of the pandemic. She said tenured legislators she’s already made connections have continued as usual, but building new connections with new lawmakers has been a little more of a struggle.
She noted legislators are not at their desks on the House and Senate floors as much this year, but she said part of her job has been to make sure she’s met all the new legislators and exchange contact information. Lobbyists thrive on being readily available for lawmakers when questions or concerns come up, Fischer-Clemens said.
So far this session, Fischer-Clemens said she hasn’t had to get a COVID-19 test. She hopes that remains the case as COVID-19 testing isn’t available at the Capitol for lobbyists, only for lawmakers.
“We have to respect each other. We have to respect each other’s space. We have to respect what’s happening here,” Fischer-Clemens said. “If we aren’t careful, more and more legislators and lobbyists are going to get sick and I don’t know what happens with this session if that’s the case.”
She said lawmakers are focused at getting through the rest of the session as safe as possible and getting a budget passed.