Connecting state and local government leaders
State capitols and legislative chambers are beginning to reopen their doors to the public amid increasing vaccination rates and shifting health guidelines.
Last Thursday, Maine Gov. Janet Mills debuted her plan to lift capacity restrictions on both public outdoor and indoor settings. Hours later, legislative leaders released a joint statement hinting that the State House, still closed to the public and to lawmakers, might be poised to reopen as well.
“From day one of the Covid-19 pandemic, our number one goal has been to protect the health and safety of Maine people, and save lives. The plan was always to return to the State House when it was safe for everyone—the public, members of the press, legislative staff, and lawmakers,” said Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau. “With today’s announcement, we are looking forward to working with our colleagues to review the new guidelines and finalize plans to eventually reopen the State House.”
Similar conversations are taking place across the country as legislative chambers, state capitols and other government buildings begin to reopen their doors to members of the public after months of restricted access designed to control the spread of Covid-19.
In North Carolina, for example, the state Capitol building in Raleigh reopened on Monday, 15 months after closing its doors to the public. The building will remain shuttered on weekends and will open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays only for self-guided tours, with new hand-sanitizing stations throughout the facility and protective barriers in place at information desks.
The state’s current seat of government—the Legislative Building, also in Raleigh—never closed to the public, though capacity limits were reduced at the height of the pandemic.
Nevada reopened on April 15, with requirements that visitors obtain a visitor badge by either presenting a negative Covid-19 test (provided on-site for free) or providing their vaccination information (name, date of birth and phone number) for verification by the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Maryland’s State House, set to reopen Friday, has similar requirements for visitors, including a screening questionnaire and a temperature scan, along with a 25-person limit per group. But masks will not be required (though they are “encouraged” for unvaccinated visitors), according to a joint statement from Gov. Larry Hogan, Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones.
New Mexico reopened its state capitol at the end of April, while Wisconsin allowed visitors back in its capitol on May 3. Visitors in Madison have access through only one entrance, according to the Department of Administration, and should not enter the building within 14 days of coming into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus or if they have symptoms of Covid-19. Masks are required in common areas, and the building will remain closed on weekends and federal holidays.
“Welcoming visitors back into the building is the first step of the DOA’s phased reopening plan,” the Wisconsin department said in a statement. “For now, the State Capitol tour desk will be staffed to provide information to visitors but tours will not be provided and the State Capitol Museum remains closed.”
Other State Capitols to Open Soon
Other states are eyeing reopening, including the Kansas State Capitol, which is scheduled to reopen on June 1. In Massachusetts, legislative leaders are working on a plan to reopen the Statehouse to visitors in the wake of updated federal health guidelines, though no details or timeline has been made public, according to emails obtained by State House News Service.
“There is a need to assess what the new guidance makes possible, for those of us who work here as well as for those who visit here, to determine the best approaches to get us there and to then work through all of those decisions with the appropriate stakeholders to be certain that we are all on the same page,” said the email, sent to state representatives by Massachusetts House Speaker Pro Tempore Kate Hogan. “We will probably also need a significant communications effort.”
But a handful of states remain closed. Rhode Island’s State House has no date listed for a potential reopening but allows visitors to take virtual tours on the secretary of state’s website. The Connecticut State Capitol will stay closed at least through the end of the legislative session on June 9 amid protests from Republican lawmakers, who said the policy doesn’t make sense when mask mandates and crowd size restrictions have been lifted for most of the state.
“Every business in the state of Connecticut has a plan to reopen except for the legislature,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora told a local NBC affiliate.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.