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South Dakota legislature lays out COVID plan for session

The South Dakota legislature appears to have a uniquely busy legislative session before them, that will be made more difficult to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Published: Jan. 6, 2021 at 10:42 AM CST
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PIERRE, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - South Dakota state lawmakers are returning to Pierre on Tuesday, January 12th for Governor Kristi Noem’s State of the State Address. That will kick off their annual legislative session.

However, the chambers that they left in March will not look exactly the same when they return this month. Now, there is plexiglass and caution tape set up to help enforce social distancing.

Well over a dozen of South Dakota state lawmakers have contracted COVID-19.

“We will provide masks, hand sanitizer, temperature checking stations around the Capitol,” said incoming Speaker of the House Spencer Gosch (R-Glenham). “A lot of things we are going to do, sanitizing schedules, we are going to mitigate to the best of our ability.”

Gosch says that he is largely supportive of legislators attending in person. He says that any changes to the attendance policy would have to be brought before the entire legislative body, and certain committees.

“We’ve got proposals that will allow individuals sick with COVID or who are quarantined due to it to be able to attend floor session remotely” Gosch said. “That is about the extent.”

In a letter, the South Dakota Legislative Research Council (SD LRC) cites Speaker-elect Gosch’s approach to the session. State Senator Lee Schoenbeck (R-Watertown), the incoming President Pro Tempore says it is important the session is conducted safely this year.

“Members of the legislature have battled COVID themselves,” says Schoenbeck, who is recovering from his own bout with COVID. “We know the situation in our state, and plan to do what we can to mitigate the spread. (But) We still understand that legislative business has to go on.”

The letter also highlights the intention to limit seating in the Senate and House galleries, and requiring face coverings in the spaces under control of the State Senate, but only encouraging them in spaces under the jurisdiction of the State House.

The South Dakota Legislative Research Council has put out their plan regarding how to conduct...
The South Dakota Legislative Research Council has put out their plan regarding how to conduct the upcoming state legislative session.(SD LRC)

The South Dakota Department of Health will be tasked with providing COVID tests to legislators. The Bureau of Administration (BOA) will be tasked with providing the time and space for those. Tests are intended to be for legislators who have symptoms or those identified as a close contact. Newly hired SD Department of Health Communications Director Daniel Bucheli says that the department is still working out specifics.

“I know that we are working with BOA to work with the doctor that is on site to provide testing for legislators,” said Bucheli.

State Representative Linda Duba (D-Sioux Falls) recently expressed her doubts about attending the state legislative session in person.

Despite disagreements with the amount of remote access, she says that she now plans to attend in person, but still has her reservations. Duba says she will be staying at a local hotel in Pierre, and is being fitted for an N-95 mask, which she intends to wear along with a face shield at all times when she is in the building.

“I will be in Pierre, with a N-95 mask on at all times,” said Duba. “Whenever I am anywhere in the Capitol, on the floor, in committee, in caucus.”

Several states across the region have or will welcome back state legislators within the week. In Wyoming, state legislators will return virtually to the Capitol on January 12th for a one day session, as required by the State Constitution. In Minnesota, the Democratic controlled State House will meet remotely, while the Republican controlled State Senate will be taking a “hybrid” approach. The Minnesota State Capitol is one of three state capitols across the country requiring masks. The Iowa State Legislature plans to take an approach similar to South Dakota’s, with only minimal restrictions in place intended to help with social distancing.

South Dakota state legislators are sure to be busy this upcoming session. In particular, dealing with COVID relief money and Governor Noem’s requested budget, and the ballot initiatives that were passed by voters last November.

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