BISMARCK — Facing a daunting logistical challenge, a group of top North Dakota lawmakers have recommended imposing a mask requirement on the Legislature when it convenes in Bismarck at the beginning of next year.
The interim Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee voted 8-2 on Wednesday, Oct. 21, to recommend that lawmakers be required to wear face coverings and get tested for COVID-19 twice per week when attending the legislative session at the state Capitol building.
If adopted by the House and Senate Rules committees and the two chambers at large, the mask requirement would apply to all areas of the Capitol that fall under legislative control. The rule would also dictate that lobbyists, reporters and members of the public wear masks in the indoor public areas.
Lawmakers expressed hope that the twice-weekly testing would come in the form of next-generation rapid testing that can produce results in just 15 minutes.
Officials and lawmakers are preparing for an unorthodox biennial session as they try to maintain social distancing and prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the 141 members of the Legislature and the usual influx of lobbyists and residents that comes with them. Leaders have already guaranteed that lawmakers who feel uncomfortable meeting at the Capitol will be able to participate in official proceedings via video conferencing.
The committee on Wednesday asked questions of Dr. Joshua Wynne, dean of the University of North Dakota's medical school and a leader in the state's pandemic response. Wynne suggested that the Legislature model its session after universities in the state that have returned to in-person classes. He strongly promoted mask use as an effective guard against the spread of the virus and noted that a widely available COVID-19 vaccine likely won't be ready in time for the session, which begins Jan. 5.
North Dakota does not have a statewide mask mandate, and Gov. Doug Burgum has repeatedly dismissed the concept in favor of relying on the "personal responsibility" of residents. The Republican majority leaders in both chambers, Rep. Chet Pollert and Sen. Rich Wardner, have previously opposed issuing broad mandates, but both voted to recommend the mask requirement for their colleagues.
Wardner said lawmakers might have to take steps that make them uneasy, like masking and refraining from socializing, to ensure that the Legislature can meet safely and "get the work of the people done."
There was bipartisan support for recommending the measure in the committee of six Republicans and four Democrats.
Sen. John Grabinger, D-Jamestown, said he had COVID-19 and lost a family member to the illness, noting that a mask requirement in the Legislature could help prevent the spread of the virus. House Minority Leader Josh Boschee said lawmakers should want to do as much as they can to protect their colleagues in Bismarck and their families back home.
"This is not a political conversation — this is a public health conversation," Boschee said.
Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, tearfully recounted the death of his 99-year-old mother from COVID-19 earlier this month, saying the Legislature should do whatever is necessary to prevent others from suffering the pain he endured.
"I sat by her bed and held her hand for four days and watched her die. It wasn't very good for me," Klemin said. "I know that I wouldn't like that to happen to anybody else. I don't want it to happen to anyone in the Legislature or to their family members. It's very difficult."
Klemin brought up that South Dakota Speaker of the House Steve Haugaard is recovering from a serious case of COVID-19 following a special session of the state Legislature. South Dakota Rep. Bob Glanzer and North Dakota legislative candidate David Andahl both died from COVID-19, though neither case is believed to be tied to a legislative assembly.
Pollert floated that the North Dakota Legislature may have to take a few weeks off if several members test positive, though no official procedure was voted on.
Two Minot Republicans on the committee, Rep. Scott Louser and Sen. Oley Larsen, were the only dissenters to recommending the mask and testing requirement.
Larsen railed against mask-wearing and refused to accept Wynne's expertise on the subject. He also falsely claimed that 84% of people who wear masks contract COVID-19 regardless and said he has a problem with how he doesn't hear about "the homeless people and the drug-addicted folks" getting the virus.
Homeless people are at an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 because many are older or have underlying health conditions, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state has also worked to keep the virus out of homeless shelters, where there have been serious outbreaks across the country.
Larsen said he also opposes basic temperature-taking of lawmakers when they enter the building. The controversial lawmaker said he intentionally bypassed the temperature check at the door of the Capitol on Wednesday because he knew he had a fever from a sinus infection.
The committee also touched on opening up several new committee rooms in the Capitol to accommodate social distancing of members. Wardner said the House, Senate and several state agencies are engaging in some "horse trading" to find bigger rooms in the Judicial Wing for larger committees.
Solutions to a series of other logistical issues about how lawmakers should wait for testing results and stagger their lunch breaks have yet to be formally proposed. The House and Senate Rules committees will likely meet before many members of the Legislature convene at the Capitol in early December for the organizational session.