PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Lawmakers in the South Dakota Legislature are getting more freedom to each deal with the threat of COVID-19, after eight tests came back positive during the past week in the House.

Senator Lee Schoenbeck, a Watertown Republican, is the Senate’s top member as president pro tem and provides direction for the 35 senators. He told KELOLAND News in an email Monday he has loosened how they can respond.

“I can’t speak to House. As for Senate, I have advised senators that due to the large numbers of positive tested House members, and the amount of close contact they have with senators, I believe they are all eligible to participate remotely and any request will be granted,” Schoenbeck wrote.

Legislative policies on COVID-19 for the 2021 session say a lawmaker can participate remotely with the presiding officer’s permission under certain circumstances. The House-Senate Joint Legislative Procedure Committee adopted specific COVID-19 requirements January 13. The House Legislative Procedure Committee also adopted a coronavirus-related rule on voting while the Senate Legislative Procedure Committee approved more restrictions for its areas of the Capitol.

Many senators have been wearing masks, while many representatives haven’t been.

Schoenbeck said he told senators the Senate’s approach would be wider last week after the first few COVID-19 positive tests among House members. Schoenbeck said he reminded senators Sunday after more positive tests were reported.

“Testing is available for legislators through options we’ve created, although there are many other avenues to get tested- lots of opportunities. We have no power to compel testing, or any interest in having that power. Personal responsibility is …personal,” Schoenbeck added.

Representative Linda Duba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, said on Twitter Sunday night the House would be changing its approach when lawmakers resume legislative work Tuesday.

“We are now at 8 SD House members and counting. The SD House leadership considers all of close contacts and have given us permission to work remote this week. I will get tested again tomorrow. I will be quarantined at home and working remotely for South Dakota citizens,” Duba tweeted.

However, the House speaker who presides over the chamber’s 70 representatives said Monday that wasn’t the case. “Duba is incorrect in her interpretation. The House is merely abiding by Joint Rule 2-5 and allowing those that have been in close contact to attend remotely,” Representative Spencer Gosch, a Glenham Republican, told KELOLAND News.

The rule says, “2-5. Remote attendance permitted. Notwithstanding the provisions of Joint Rules 2-2, 2-3, and 12-2 the president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives may excuse a member from personal attendance at a committee meeting or at a daily floor session if the member has the COVID-19 virus or the member is in quarantine because of the COVID-19 virus. The excused member may participate and vote in any committee meeting or any daily session from a remote site and by electronic means. The president pro tempore or speaker shall notify the chair of each committee the excused member serves on that the member has been excused. The committee minutes and the daily journal shall indicate that the excused member participated and voted remotely.”

Gosch issued this official statement Monday afternoon: “Anyone that has been in close contact with another individual diagnosed with Covid 19 will be allowed to participate remotely adjacent to 2-5.”

Duba, who wears a mask and a face shield as protections while at the Capitol, wanted permission before the session to work remotely, so she could be at lower risk of catching COVID-19 and infecting relatives, but House Republican leadership adopted other rules.

Gosch declined to confirm whether Representative Hugh Bartels, a Watertown Republican, was the eighth confirmed case in the House. Others who have participated remotely or confirmed they tested positive since the February 6-7 weekend were Republican House members Aaron Aylward of Harrisburg, Chris Karr of Sioux Falls, Tom Pischke of Dell Rapids, Tamara St. John of Sisseton, Taffy Howard of Rapid City, Nancy York of Watertown and Will Mortenson of Pierre.

“Out of respect for individual legislators, it is not my practice to release or confirm names to the media. Increased testing will be provided this week for those that wish to do so,” Gosch said.

Representative Bob Glanzer, a Huron Republican, contracted COVID-19 last March and died. House Democratic leader Jamie Smith of Sioux Falls presented a letter last week to the House speaker asking that the House adopt the same policy as the Senate. The House encourages face coverings, while the Senate requires them, except for senators.

Several House members participated remotely last week. Senator Herman Otten, a Lennox Republican, also did because he had been in close contact with one of the representatives.

As of Sunday, the state Department of Health reported 1,844 deaths and 110,315 positive tests from COVID-19 in South Dakota. Republican Governor Kristi Noem told legislators last week in a special speech that South Dakota’s lack of restrictions helped spur the economy’s stronger performance.

Both Gosch and Schoenbeck denied reports that had circulated at the Capitol last week about legislative leaders considering a two-week break. The main run of the session has been scheduled to end Thursday, March 11, with lawmakers returning Monday, March 29, to handle any vetoes by the governor or other remaining unfinished business.

“Not to my knowledge was there ever a plan to suspend session,” Gosch said.

Said Schoenbeck, “This didn’t happen. I think all the meetings we were having on revenue estimates led to the conclusion that the discussions were about a covid recess.”

In a campaign fundraising email sent February 12 and redistributed Monday, Noem issued a message tied to the President’s Day national holiday: “In South Dakota we continue to fight COVID-19 in a way that honors our founding principles by respecting the constitutional limits of government power and trusting individuals to make the decisions best for their family.

“The response from the media has been attacks and name-calling. And not by a few critics on the sidelines, but from very powerful voices.

“I’ve done my best to stay strong, and I’m glad I did. Our state is among the top states in vaccinations per capita, and we are in quite possibly the best financial position our state has ever had.”

Meanwhile, a long-time lobbyist at South Dakota legislative session tested positive for COVID-19 Friday and is ill at home, according to information received today. He contacted Legislative Research Council and the state Department of Health in turn reached him with contact-tracing questionnaire. The lobbyist didn’t want his name publicized, reportedly because the Legislature doesn’t provide COVID-19 testing for lobbyists.

The Legislative Research Council (the lawmakers’ professional staff) has a mandatory mask policy that’s been in place for months. There reportedly were COVID-19 infections among various LRC staff last year, including at least one serious case.