AUSTIN (Nexstar) — A familiar sound graced the echoing halls of the Texas Capitol on Monday for the first time since March: the sound of visitors.
The building reopened to the public ahead of the convening of the 87th Legislature, which gavels in on Jan. 12.
As lawmakers and their staffs move offices, tourists are snapping shots of the rotunda and visitors like Chase Stafford are admiring the stories this halls have to offer.
“It allows me to be able to explore some of America’s history,” Stafford said.
The Capitol typically hosts hundreds of thousands of guests during a session year. The Texas State Preservation Board (the agency responsible for maintaining the Capitol and its grounds) tallied 634,141 visitors from Jan. 1 to May 31, 2019. A spokesperson reported 662,521 visitors during the same time period in 2017.
The level of public involvement in legislating this go-around is still unclear, but the process will certainly see changes.
The State Preservation Board is capping capacity, requiring masks and installing extra hand sanitizer stations throughout the Capitol. Some rooms, like the Capitol Grill, remain closed for now, but the gift shop in the underground extension has reopened with protective barriers.
Free, rapid testing provided by the state is available on the north plaza. It’s encouraged, but not required for entry to the building. Public access to the Capitol is through the north entrance.
Each lawmaker has the purview to determine procedures for individual offices. The Texas House Administration chair State Rep. Charlie Geren, R – Fort Worth, sent members a list of guidelines over the weekend. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, announced protocols on Monday for how the upper chamber will start the session.
“They have to consider all aspects of keeping up with the government making sure the country is running while still slowly reopening things so that the public can start to get back to normal while still trying to contain the spread of the virus,” Capitol visitor Ashleigh Rutledge said.