While Oregon Capitol leadership have agreed to mostly delay the upcoming legislative session by two days due to threats that followed the siege of the nation’s Capitol building in Washington, D.C, lawmakers remain split on dealing with another threat: the COVID-19 pandemic.
During an online preview of the 2021 legislative session hosted by The Associated Press, leaders on Friday disagreed about whether or not the public should be allowed back into the Capitol while lawmakers are at work or if public input should remain virtual.
“I think that we should do everything humanely possible to open the building, as best we can given the situation,” Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod said.
Girod, who is from Stayton, said while he is aware of the possibility” of COVID-19 spreading in the Capitol, “it is worth the risk.”
“You can put restrictions on it, but you do what you can to make it so that the public has a right to come in and testify,” Girod said. There are billions of dollars that are going to be spent, there are huge bills that are going to be argued.”
Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat from Salem, strongly disagreed.
“I am not willing to play God with this stuff,” Courtney said who added that he has an obligation to keep people in the building safe. “You may be willing to take a risk, but I am not.”
Currently, all committee hearings are virtual for at least the first couple months of the session due to restrictions put into place to limit potential transmission of COVID-19. But voting on bills will still need to be occur in person.
Democrats have strong majorities in the House and Senate.
House Speaker Tina Kotek said lawmakers have been working to expand the opportunity for public input, both by holding additional hearings and lengthening deadlines.
The Capitol has been closed to the public since March. Only authorized personnel, which includes lawmakers, staff, police and reporters have access to the building.
However no one will be allowed in the Capitol Tuesday and Wednesday.
State lawmakers in Oregon announced they have delayed, by at least two days much of the substantive work of next week’s beginning of the Legislature on Tuesday because of warnings from law enforcement about the possibility of violent protests. On Friday, the first floor windows of the Capitol were noticeably boarded up with plywood ahead of possible protests.
In addition, Oregon National Guard members have been activated to help at the Capitol ahead of possible violence leading up to Inauguration Day.
‘The state Capitol has become a fortress,” Courtney said. “I never thought I’d see that, it breaks my heart.”
While the nation watched the U.S. Capitol be invaded by a mob of President Donald Trump supporters on Jan. 6, Oregon witnessed an eerily similar incident just 16 days before.
During a one-day special session on Dec. 21, as Oregon lawmakers met to discuss and pass four bills mainly related to coronavirus relief, a violent crowd entered the state Capitol, fought with police, assaulted journalists and damage the building.
Both Republicans and Democratic leaders described the events as “disgusting” and “appalling.”
Some of the protesters totted guns, which has been cause for debate on gun restrictions inside the Capitol when it does reopen to the public.
Democratic Majority Leader Rep. Barbara Smith Warner said that demonstrators open carrying guns at the Capitol intended to intimidate others.
Republican Leader of the House Rep. Christine Drazan says that if someone asked a protester why they were carrying guns they would respond that they were exercising their 2nd Amendment right.
When the Capitol will reopen to the public, remains unclear. But in the meantime, lawmakers they have a lot of work to do in the session.
But once they do return lawmakers said the clear focus is responding to crisis — COVID-19, wildfire relief, schools, health and racial justice.
“This session is about responding to crisis’ and helping people. We have been in crisis mode for the last year,” Kotek said. “Now that we are in session, we are going to continue on the path in making sure that people have what they are need and housed while dealing with the multiple crisis.”
Gov. Kate Brown the focus of the session will revolve around pandemic response, wildfire recovery and a call to end racism in our culture and institutions.
“I believe this is a moment of transformation,” Kotek said. “We cannot simply be reactive in the crisis we are in, we have to be intentional in building for the future.”
Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.