PIERRE, S.D. — Almost everything seemed in shipshape on Tuesday, Feb. 16 in the South Dakota House of Representatives' chamber.

Rep. Greg Jamison, a Sioux Falls Republican, spoke on the phone in an aisle.

Republican Reps. Bethany Soye (Sioux Falls) stopped to enjoy a laugh with Liz May (Kyle) at her desk.

None were masked, but that's normal in a body that has eschewed mask guidelines. And then came House Speaker Spencer Gosch's gavel banged, and the roll call.

Regularly, a boisterous affair of "yeps" and "presents" from around the state, this time nearly 20 members' names were read out and followed by silence.

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Call it the COVID quiet.

That's because the global pandemic has finally wrestled the South Dakota House chamber, if not into submission, at least into reluctant acknowledgment of the virus's lurking presence in a state that trails few in terms of its COVID fatality rate.

Over the weekend, the eighth member tested positive for COVID-19, and South Dakota's House leadership announced members could vote remotely during chamber remotely, via laptops or home computers or phone.

On Tuesday, 17 of the 70-member body participated remotely, with many staying home out of precaution of contracting the virus that reared its head in the body less than two weeks ago.

The South Dakota House of Representatives opted to forgo a mask mandate in the chamber, even though the state has one of the deadliest COVID-19 rates in the nation. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
The South Dakota House of Representatives opted to forgo a mask mandate in the chamber, even though the state has one of the deadliest COVID-19 rates in the nation. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

For a legislative body that has touted its ability to be normal amid an abnormal year, and especially in a chamber where speeches have championed laissez-faire approaches to virus mitigation, Tuesday was the first day that felt different.

It's still unknown how many members of the body have tested positive in the chamber, as reporters have mostly been dependent upon lawmakers in the body sharing text messages sent to lawmakers by Speaker Gosch, a Glenham Republican.

But with many for the first time staying away from the chamber, if not out of Pierre altogether, members are more vocal than ever about their concerns.

"Respect for others' freedom is a constant demand in South Dakota. But there is a complete lack of accountability when that freedom harms others," said Jennifer Keintz, an Eden Democrat, who physically attended Tuesday wearing a mask.

A letter House Minority Leader Jamie Smith, D-Sioux Falls, delivered to Gosch last week called on the House to follow the Senate's rules issued over six weeks ago in requiring masks in their jurisdiction. So far, the Senate has yet to publicly announce any member to test positively for the coronavirus.

In a news conference last week, House Majority Leader Kent Peterson, R-Salem, bandied back calls for mitigation efforts saying, "The virus is going to spread," arguing changes to the chamber's rules would impede the people's business.

Tuesday, the remote participation didn't seem to interrupt the people's business at all. In fact, Tuesday looked and felt like any other day at the South Dakota statehouse.

Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, talked about fiscal conservatism. Rep. Tim Goodwin, R-Rapid City, called state licensing requirements for animal feeding operations an example of "big brother." House Assistant Majority Leader Chris Johnson, R-Rapid City, even spoke on his resolution to prevent court-packing at the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Recent efforts to pack the court represent a clear and present danger," said Johnson, who — as has been his style this legislative session — went unmasked.

An errant noise — running water that sounded like a visit to the restroom — briefly sent the legislative body into giggles.

Gosch reminded remote members of hot microphones.

In response to an inquiry from Forum News Service, Rep. Tom Pischke, a Republican from Dell Rapids, demurred blame, pointing in the direction of his neighbor to the north, Rep. Nancy York, who later confirmed she had been sitting by the aquarium at her home in Watertown during a roll call vote.

"I will move," York said, via email.

There'd be no relaxing white-noise on the next vote. Or the paper-shuffling and murmuring. Just the silence that emanates from a lot of empty desks.