For the “glass half full” crowd out there, responses to the pandemic should make the state Capitol a healthier place than normal during the annual legislative session that begins, according to the Legislative Research Council records, at noon on Jan. 12.
I hate to get into an aside this soon in my musings, but Jan. 12? That’s my birthday. How many other South Dakotans get a lawmaking session for their birthday? Truth be told, I’d as soon have a good pair of wool socks or a new set of strings for my guitar.
A legislative session is a gift in its own way, though, especially if it’s a healthy season. What I’ve read suggests that leaders plan to take precautions during the next session to prevent or limit the spread within the Capitol halls of COVID-19, the virus that has impacted the whole world for most of 2020. A story by longtime Capitol reporter Bob Mercer says masks will be required most of the time, social distancing will be enforced, remote discussions encouraged when appropriate and so on. Those are pretty basic measures, to be sure, but if enforced they’ll be a far cry from the behavior during most of the legislative sessions I covered as a newspaper staffer.
The Capitol building during legislative sessions has always been a place where folks greet each other heartily. That means firm handshakes, enthusiastic “hellos” and close-up and personal discussions, whether of the weather, a college basketball game or the sneaky amendment that got tacked onto a bill that otherwise would have sailed through the Senate without a dissent.
I never really understood the penchant for handshake during the session. The legislators, lobbyists and Capitol workers are people who see each other every single day from early January through sometime in March. Even so, a good number of those people made each greeting more heart-felt than the one between the father and his prodigal son.
In the Capitol building during legislative sessions, the term “personal space” simply isn’t recognized. People crowd near as they grasp your hand with one of theirs and grip your bicep with their other hand. Strategists huddle in the corners, faces inches apart as they whisper up a new approach to an old bill. Legislative pages lean close during committee hearings to receive an important, ears-only communication from a busy lawmaker.
“Run down to the cafe in the basement and get me an egg sandwich and a cup of coffee with cream and two sugars.” OK, sometimes the communications are even more important than that, but I promise you I did once overhear a House member make that exact request of a page during a committee hearing.
I also heard, over the years, these comments: “I was up hacking and wheezing all night, but I have to be in Appropriations this morning.” “Doctor of the Day says I should go home and stay in bed, but I have to testify on my client’s bill in Local Government.” “Everyone in my family is sick. I’m probably spreading it all over the building.”
These are some of the things a person who hangs around the Capitol sees and hears. The personal contact, touching of hands, leaning close, whispering into faces? That encourages the spread of whatever is going around. In my experience, something always was going around during legislative sessions.
The Capitol building was one massive, highly productive Petri dish, growing germs and bacteria 24 hours a day. If you are around the place long enough, you pick up one bug or another. It’s simply inevitable, like the sun rising in the east (although I suppose there are conspiracy theorists who’d tell you east really is a concept of the deep state). Walk around the building often enough, talk to enough people and you’ll wind up with a cold, flu of some kind, a cough you can’t shake, something.
Veterans called it the Capitol crud. I spent 40 years covering sessions, and try as I might, I couldn’t make it to the end of one without a cold of some kind. I’m interested to see if the pandemic-related restrictions will change that.