SALEM, Ore. (AP) — After 16-months of being closed to the public as a COVID-19 safety measure, Oregon’s Capitol building reopened on Monday.
The buildings closure has been a point of tension between Democratic and Republican lawmakers, as Republicans argued throughout the pandemic that everyone should have access to the Capitol.
“Last March, we consulted with infectious disease doctors and public health officials about what changes were needed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the Capitol,” House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney said in a joint statement on Monday that announced the Capitol’s reopening now that more than 70% of Oregon’s adults have been partially or fully vaccinated. “In the end, we made the very difficult decision to limit Capitol entry to legislators, essential staff, and members of the press.”
Republican legislators opposed closure of the Capitol stating that it is “the people’s building” and should be open to the public.
In protest of the closure, some Senate Republicans routinely voted no on matters unrelated to COVID-19. In the House, Republicans refused to suspend rules that require bills be read in their entirety on final passage, slowing the pace of the session.
Tensions boiled over in the community as well. During a special legislative session in December, a group of people — some toting guns — gathered outside Oregon’s Capitol to protest the building’s closure to the public and other ongoing statewide coronavirus restrictions.
At one point, Republican lawmaker Rep. Mike Nearman left the Capitol, letting in protesters who had planned to occupy the Statehouse. In June, the Oregon House voted to remove Nearman, marking the first time a member has been expelled by the chamber in its 160-year history.
While the Capitol is open, and guided tours will resume July 19th, there are still parts of the building the remain inaccessible due to the Capitol Accessibility, Maintenance and Safety project taking place throughout the summer and into the fall. The Senate and House wings of the building will be closed through Dec. 31.
Last month, lawmakers concluded a historic 2021 legislative session. They are not set to return until at least late August when they’ll begin discussions around redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional district maps.
Sara 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.