At the end of a week in which four fellow members of South Dakota's House of Representatives tested positive for COVID-19, Minority Leader Jamie Smith presented Speaker Spencer Gosch with a letter calling for a mask mandate in their chamber to match one in the state Senate.
“He said, ‘Thank you, I’ll read it,” Smith later told The Daily Beast.
Smith then departed the state Capitol building in Pierre and began the three-hour drive home to Sioux Falls. He received a text on the way informing him that two more House members had just tested positive. All six are Republicans. And Smith figures only about a third of the 62 GOP House members wear masks in the Capitol.
Smith and his seven fellow Democrats all do, but he arrived home under no illusion that masks are a guarantee against infection. He quarantined himself pending a COVID-19 test by going directly to the bedroom of his older son, who is away at college.
“I hung out there and yelled out the hallway to my wife that I was home,” he recalled.
His GOP counterpart, Majority Leader Kent Peterson, did not sound particularly alarmed when he spoke to a local broadcaster about the COVID-19 cases in the House.
“The virus is going to spread,” Peterson said. “That’s what this virus has done. We’ve seen that across the county, across the state. But we have processes in place.”
The processes include Plexiglas shields and hand sanitizer, but not a mask requirement.
“We took a different approach when he started this session,” Peterson went on. “We decided we were going to have an in-person session. Many people said that can’t be done, that’s not a good idea. We put the processes and procedures in place knowing that something would come up. And we made it a long way without much happening. But then we had a few this week.”
A few being six out of the 70 house members in just four days.
“And so we followed and are continuing to follow those processes that we set up. The good news is the numbers across the state are going down.”
In fact, new COVID-19 cases in South Dakota were up Thursday to 279 from 175 the day before. The day’s death toll was 14, up from six on Wednesday. But the numbers were indeed considerably lower than the highs of 1,885 new cases on Nov. 18 and 54 deaths on Nov. 28. And due in part to Gov. Kristi Noem’s refusal to impose a mask mandate, the total of 110,000 cases and 1,829 deaths still put South Dakota toward the top nationally per capita.
On one level, the House majority is only doing what might be expected by following a Republican governor’s lead in rejecting a mask requirement. The resistance becomes less understandable when you consider that a GOP House member beloved by those in both parties was among of the first four COVID deaths in the state. Rep. Bob Glanzer died April 3, six days after the virus claimed his niece.
“He was a great man,” Smith said on Friday. “I think everybody in the legislature liked Bob. It was a sad day for all of us.”
And the sight of the suddenly empty chair on the House floor was accompanied by the uncertainty of how to meet this deadly threat.
“It was when we still didn’t know hardly anything about the pandemic,” Smith recalled.
Initially, there were conflicting messages from the CDC about the need to wear a mask. But, as a former middle school science teacher, Smith knew enough about research to understand that views can change with further discovery.
“We make different decisions when we learn different things,” he noted.
But masks became the subject of willful and heedless politics right out of a playground.
“The former president of the United States was a big part of that,” Smith said.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem joined Trump in making mask-wearing something other than a matter of public health. She turned the irresponsible recklessness of going bareface into a question of what she termed “personal responsibility.”
“Our governor and the president had a very strong relationship,” Smith noted drily.
Smith allows that South Dakota benefited in some fiscal ways from Noem’s closeness to Trump. But he also knows that many of the people who go barefaced would likely be wearing masks if their leaders did and told them to do the same.
“People follow their leaders, they really do,” Smith said. “And they look to their leaders to be an example.”
Early this month , Smith posted a photo on Facebook of a House committee hearing in the Capitol crowded with maskless supporters of the Convention of States (COS), a movement advocating constitutional amendments to restrict the reach of the federal government. The COS bunch apparently follows Trump and Noem in mistaking mask mandates as a matter of liberty, not life.
”Not a mask in sight,” Smith wrote. “We are here to do the work of the people, for the people, and we must remain healthy to continue that work. I am asking South Dakotans to respect their neighbors and please wear a mask!”
Smith has seen proof of a mandate’s power in people who pass from a Senate proceeding where masks are required to the House, where there is no such rule.
“As soon as they don’t have to wear a mask, they don’t,” he said. “It’s the same person.“
One of the Republican legislators who does wear a mask is Rep. Lynn Schneider, who was Glanzer’s brother-in-law and was appointed by Noem to fill his seat. Smith notes that his letter on Thursday only asked the rest of the House to do what the Senate is already doing
“It’s not a heavy lift,” he said.
The Democratic minority he leads will be sticking to its original approach.
“We said from the beginning we wouldn’t politicize the pandemic,” he said. “We just need to work together to keep people safe.”
He is heartened that cases are generally trending down in South Dakota along with the rest of the nation. But the 14 dead on Thursday were still more than might have died had people done what has been proven to make a difference. And there are still the more than 1,800 fatalities in South Dakota, more than 475,000 in America.
“We all need to focus on the people who aren't around us any more,” Smith said.
On Friday, Smith got a drive-up test at a site run by Sanford Medical Center and was told to expect the results in 12 to 18 hours. He resumed quarantining in his son’s room pending notification.
“You don't want to put any of your friends loved ones at risk,” he said.
Assuming he tests negative, Smith expects to return on Tuesday to the House where he has asked the GOP majority to do nothing more than what the Senate is doing.
He nonetheless expects most of his fellow members to continue as before even though six of their own tested positive in four days.
“I don’t anticipate any changes,” he said.
On Saturday, Smith reported that a 7th representative had tested positive.