PIERRE S.D. — The South Dakota Legislature's experiment with running a session without mask mandates almost reached the halfway point without any confirmed outbreak of COVID-19.
Until this week.
On Wednesday, Feb. 10, House Minority Leader Jamie Smith confirmed to Forum News Service that the number of COVID-19 confirmed cases among lawmakers in his chamber now stands at four.
Legislative leaders have not yet named the third and fourth cases. But in the last few days, House leadership and various news reports have confirmed that two Republicans, Rep. Aaron Aylward of Harrisburg and Rep. Chris Karr of Sioux Falls, both had contracted the illness associated with the coronavirus.
Neither Karr and Aylward were in the House chamber on Wednesday; Karr participated remotely.
"I would call that a cluster, not an outbreak, according to our own Department of Health (guidelines)," said Smith, a Sioux Falls Democrat, from his offices on the third floor of the Statehouse.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies a workplace cluster as two or more cases "connected in time and place."
More worrisome, though, Smith noted, was the increased attendance of outside groups — including busloads of school children — who often wander the capitol and watch proceedings without wearing masks.
"We had a bunch of people not wearing masks," said Smith, "And it especially irks me that we're allowing visitors to come into our building without masks, bringing who knows what from wherever across the state."
Masks were more prevalent in the House chamber on Wednesday than usually are visible, especially among Republicans who've been more likely than not to forgo facial coverings during the 2021 legislative session.
Masks are not required for either the Senate or the House's members, though the Senate does require masks for "all individuals in spaces under the jurisdiction of the South Dakota Senate." According to a set of rules issued early last month, legislators are allowed to attend and vote remotely "under certain circumstances and with leadership approval."
Asked in January what it'd take to send the Senate or the House home due to a COVID-19 outbreak, Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck told FNS "If we had five or six of them (legislative staff infections) going on, then we probably got to go home for awhile."
An email to Reed Holwegner, director of the South Dakota Legislative Research Council, asking whether any staff have become infected was not immediately returned.
South Dakota leadership has bucked scientific consensus by declining to implement a mask mandate statewide. As of Wednesday, the state had the second-highest infection rate nationwide, according to the CDC.