PIERRE, S.D. — The Statehouse in Pierre is under its first outbreak of COVID-19, but so far Republican leadership wishes to plug along with its work, under the same — largely suggestive — rules.
"We're in choppy waters," said Rep. Chris Johnson, a Rapid City Republican, in a Thursday morning, Feb. 11, news conference. "But we keep navigating through the choppy waters. We haven't stopped and dropped anchor like other states have."
By Thursday evening, six lawmakers in the House, which does not have a mask mandate for visitors or members, had been confirmed to Forum News Service as becoming sick with COVID-19, according to multiple sources at the statehouse.
Earlier on Thursday, when only four members had been publicly confirmed as testing positive for COVID-19, House Minority Leader Rep. Jamie Smith, D-Sioux Falls, reiterated his concern about members of the public visiting the Capitol and not wearing masks.
"When did we stop caring about our neighbors in South Dakota?" asked Smith, who sent a letter signed by the state's Democratic caucus to House GOP leadership calling on the body to adopt the Senate's rules.
But even without any formal change, the presence of COVID in the capitol, says various lawmakers who spoke with FNS, has encouraged more masking up.
Rep. Will Mortenson, a Pierre Republican, said he counted 11 of 13 members masked up at a morning committee on Thursday.
"The four legislators with COVID are our colleagues and our friends," said Mortenson. "We're thinking about them and hoping for their recovery."
But, at least as of Thursday, the crowds swarming in from across the state seem unabated.
Over the noon hour Thursday, the Family Heritage Alliance, a conservative Christian organization, held a gathering in the Capitol rotunda, with dozens of maskless attendees from around the state eating sandwiches on tables and sitting up along the grand staircase. Two persons wearing pins for the "Alpha Center," a Sioux Falls-based nonprofit that aids women with unplanned pregnancies but does not provide abortion care services, did not wear masks.
Asked if they'd like to discuss their decision to attend the rally at the Statehouse, the woman said, "We'd rather not."
In the gift shop on the lower level, Mya Olson, who'd testified in favor of House Bill 1159, which would've prohibited the "compulsion" of vaccines, said she'd noted one member of the committee (Rep. Aaron Aylward, R-Harrisburg, who was the first member to be confirmed publicly) participated remotely today. But Olson said she never considered staying away from the Capitol, even though remote testimony is possible. She also wasn't wearing a mask, echoing a belief in "personal responsibility" often drummed by her governor, Republican Kristi Noem.
"If I'm sick, I'd stay home," said Olson, from Bradley, S.D.
Pressed if she believed in asymptomatic spread, Olson said, "I've done a little bit of research" and claimed that "there's absolutely zero proof for asymptomatic spread."
However, health experts widely believe that asymptomatic spread is real and dangerous. A Duke University BRAVE Kids study this fall found nearly 40% of children ages 6 to 13 who tested positive for the virus were asymptomatic. In January, a study from health journal JAMA Network Open found that nearly 60% of transmission of COVID-19 has been spread by persons without symptoms.
Wednesday was the halfway point of the 40-day legislative session, and while mask use is still far from uniform in the House chamber, members report not just more mask use, but more tests — even for those without symptoms — outside a doctor's office on the Capitol's fourth floor.
House Majority Leader Kent Peterson, a Salem Republican, defended Thursday his decision not to announce the names.
"Some folks who've said, 'You can release my name, and others have said no,'" said Peterson. "So I'm not going to comment anymore on that."
South Dakota is by no means the only state to plow forward with an in-person session with minimal mandatory safeguards in place. The Missouri Statehouse has seen at least 10 members with confirmed positive cases of COVID-19.
Earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, a Texas Republican, died at the age of 67 after testing positive for COVID-19. He is the first sitting member of Congress to die from the disease.