BISMARCK — Republican leaders in the North Dakota Legislature have left no doubt about their desire for a mask requirement on lawmakers even as some within their own party have voiced opposition to the measure.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said at a news conference on Tuesday, Dec. 1, a mask mandate on the Legislature would allow the 141 members of the House and Senate to do their jobs when their regular session begins in January.
"We want to get through this session and move along because we've got important things to do," Wardner said in reference to a complicated budgeting process and series of recurring political issues. He noted that some members of the Legislature have underlying health conditions that would make them vulnerable to suffering a serious illness from COVID-19.
Legislative leaders voted 8-2 last month to support a mask mandate for lawmakers, reporters and lobbyists in legislative-controlled areas of the Capitol. The proposal must pass the rules committees in the House and Senate and then both full chambers during the Legislature's organizational session over the next two days.
If the mask rules pass, lawmakers who violate them could be punished for contempt or disorderly conduct, which could include a Class A misdemeanor and a maximum penalty of one year behind bars, a $3,000 fine or both, according to a memo from Legislative Council. Both the House and the Senate passed temporary rules on Tuesday for mask-wearing in the Capitol that will only apply to the rest of the three-day organizational session.
The entire state already has a mask requirement in public areas until at least Dec. 13, and violators could be cited for an infraction and fined $1,000.
Several opponents of the proposed mandate have emerged within the state's politically dominant Republican Party, including Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck, who founded the ultra-conservative Bastiat Caucus. Becker told Forum News Service he doesn't believe masks work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in people without symptoms. Epidemiological studies have found that widespread mask-wearing cuts down on the transmission of the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Becker said if a mask mandate and mandatory bi-weekly COVID-19 testing are strictly enforced in the Legislature he will "not be subjected to that" and attend meetings virtually via Microsoft Teams.
Pollert noted that if lawmakers don't feel comfortable showing up to the session in person or don't want to wear a mask, they can attend meetings virtually.
Sen. Oley Larsen, R-Minot, opposes a mask requirement in the Senate though he expects one to pass. Larsen said the Legislature shouldn't force something on itself that he has found to be unpopular with his constituents. He also expressed doubt that masks actually work in reducing the spread of the virus.
Larsen said he would comply with a mask rule if it's passed because he wants to continue serving his constituents and he couldn't properly represent them from "the gulag of the online platform."
"If they want me to wear a clown outfit, I'll wear a clown outfit," Larsen said of following Senate rules.
Rep. Sebastian Ertelt, R-Lisbon, said the mask mandate and limitations on businesses imposed by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum and the executive branch are ineffective and overbearing. He argued South Dakota, which has issued hardly any mandates on residents or businesses, has fared better than its northern neighbor. South Dakota currently leads the nation in COVID-19 deaths per capita and has the second most cases per capita over the last week, according to the CDC.
Rep. Gretchen Dobervich, D-Fargo, said masks have been used to reduce the spread of illnesses for more than 100 years and implored her colleagues to get on board with the "proven" public health measure.
The House and Senate rules committees were expected to vote on the proposals Tuesday or Wednesday, and the full chambers are to vote on the measures Thursday morning.
Also on Tuesday, members of the House elected longtime Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, as speaker of the House. He succeeds Rep. Larry Klemin, R-Bismarck, in presiding over the 94-member chamber.
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