SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Legislature will announce plans to re-open the Capitol complex to the public for the 2021 session.
House and Senate Republican leaders announced plans on Friday to allow public access during the legislative session. FOX 13 first reported on the plans Friday morning.
Re-opening the Capitol grounds comes with restrictions. For starters, masks will be mandated.
"If individuals refuse to wear a mask in the Capitol, the general public, we will have to ask them to leave," House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said.
Lawmakers will also be expected to wear masks. The only exception is if they are seated at their desk in the House or Senate chambers behind a plexiglass barrier or speaking to a bill. Plans have been made to have senators and representatives undergo rapid COVID-19 testing at least twice a week. They will not be given the vaccine in advance, GOP leaders said.
"We’re relying on testing and good judgment of the senators to take care of themselves," said Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton.
The Capitol complex has been closed to the public since the end of March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Lawmakers have pivoted to a hybrid of in-person and virtual meetings to pass bills. At the same time, the legislature has expanded its public access by taking comment on issues online (with people joining a WebEx to give testimony instead of driving to Capitol Hill).
That is expected to continue in the 2021 session. But how to re-open "The People's House," as it is commonly known, has been tricky. The building is a notorious spreader of germs with so many people from all over the state coming to participate in hearings, attend ceremonies and protests, and meet with their elected representatives.
The Capitol Preservation Board, which oversees the grounds, has removed the cafeteria and replaced it with new, larger committee rooms to enable physical distancing for the upcoming legislative session. Access to those rooms will be limited. Extra-sanitization between committee hearings will take place.
"We’re recommending people be online and we’ll have the ability for public input to be online, we also recognize that people want to be here in person so we’ve tried to increase the ability for that happen," Sen. Adams said.
The famed "green coats" and "gray coats" of the House and Senate, who act as docents and bring in constituent notes or monitor a committee room will not be here in the 2021 session. Made up mostly of retirees, they've been told to stay home for health reasons. Constituents are urged to text, call or email their lawmakers as notes will not be sent in to the House or Senate chambers.
Utah Highway Patrol troopers will be increasing security (including bag checks at every door).
Speaker Wilson said people can still show up to protest.
"If there is a protest we can just follow those protocols where people stay safely apart and wear masks. And that’s fine, that’s part of the process is letting people let their voice be heard. We don’t have any intention of shutting that down unless it becomes unsafe," he said.
Speaker Wilson famously banned handshakes within the Capitol in March to avoid the spread of COVID-19 and other germs that rampage through the legislative session. He has told FOX 13 that practice will likely continue.
"Maybe forever," he laughed.
Read the Utah State Legislature's COVID-19 protocols here: