SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Capitol will reopen to the public for in-person participation in the 2021 legislative session on Monday, lawmakers announced Friday evening.
"The health and safety of all Utahns remain our No. 1 priority as we accommodate in-person attendance at the Capitol," Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in a prepared statement.
"Public input is essential in maintaining the legislative process and steps were quickly taken to ensure in-person public participation and proper health and safety measures. We hope Utahns will continue to provide their valuable feedback and utilize the virtual or in-person option."
Masks and 6-foot social distancing will still be required by everyone inside of the Capitol. Space in committee rooms will be limited. Even though in-person participation will be allowed, legislative leaders still encouraged Utahns to participate virtually.
Additionally, Utah Highway Patrol troopers will be stationed at each of the Capitol's four public entrances to conduct bag checks. They'll also stand guard at committee meetings to "protect the public, staff and elected officials," a news release stated.
"The past year has taught us to be flexible and adaptable," said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. "While we initially only allowed for virtual public participation, we now look forward to the public rejoining us in person. We will continue to adapt to whatever is thrown our way. The health and safety of our lawmakers, staff, and the public will continue to be the top priority."
All of the Legislature's open meetings and floor debates can still be accessed on the legislative website, le.utah.gov. More information about how to participate virtually is also available on the website.
Legislative leaders also referred anyone interested in attending in person to get rapid tested at the Utah State Fairgrounds. Testing, however, is only recommended and not required to gain entry into the Capitol.
The public will be allowed in even as COVID-19 was detected in the building the first days of the session. Friday, the Utah Department of Health confirmed to the Deseret News that three COVID-19 cases had been identified on Capitol Hill during the first week of the session, thanks to rapid testing conducted daily for staff and lawmakers. Senate leaders said no legislators had tested positive, and the cases were staffers and an intern.
It was fears of protest violence — not COVID-19 — that prompted the Utah Legislature to ban the public from at least the first week of the legislative session after the U.S. Capitol was breached Jan. 6.
But throughout the first week of the general session, which started Tuesday, only a handful of protesters came to the Capitol grounds.
Some came on the day of President Joe Biden's inauguration — a woman who supported Biden, and some men who supported Trump. Friday morning, a woman put signs outside the entrance demanding legislators open the building. Her signs read "No more secret meetings," "Open meetings are essential" and "What's going on behind closed doors?"
The public this week could still participate and listen to the Legislature's open meetings online.
Asked if the Capitol had received any credible threats this week that concerned public safety officials, Wilson told reporters earlier Friday "not that I'm aware of."
"We had some threats earlier which we kind of alluded to, but it was a good week up here and we appreciate everyone's support in what we've been trying to accomplish," Wilson said.
The first week with virtual public participation progressed with only minor technical issues, Senate leaders told reporters in a separate media briefing. Members of the public could join meetings through Zoom videoconferencing that allowed legislators to hear public comment on bills.
"So far the (committee meetings) I've been in, you know where the public has chosen to participate — which is not all of them, but most of them — it seems to have gone pretty well. Yeah, there was a glitch or two, but nothing that shut everybody down," Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said.
"I have seen a lot of people participate from outside, so that's been a good thing," he said.
Senate Budget Vice Chairman Don Ipson, R-St. George, noted that "ease of accessibility" has improved public participation in some ways.
"Particularly people from rural areas that it's a burden on them to travel, this is really an improvement for them in the process, in my mind," Ipson said.
Vickers added, however, that lawmakers miss personal interaction with the public.
When a reporter asked about lobbyists entering the Capitol to meet with legislators, Adams said: "As far as I understand, people are coming in for appointments. I've had people come in that are citizens."
Some visitors came from Dixie State University, where debate over the anticipated name change is raging, noted Adams, R-Layton.
"I think there have been lobbyists, but we've been allowing it by appointment. Hopefully, that's no secret that we've had lots of people into the Capitol as long as they're by appointment," he said.
Vickers, Ipson and other Senate leaders told reporters their appointments with members of the public this week have been virtual, while Adams said he's met with people in person.
When asked whether it's fair for lobbyists to get into the Capitol while it's closed to the public, Adams said "I think anyone who wants to do so, and we can clear them into the Capitol, they'll come."
When asked for her take on lobbyists getting inside the Capitol, Lauren Simpson, policy director for Alliance for a Better Utah, said "I think from an accessibility and transparency angle, it's always concerning when insiders are given preferential treatment over members of the general public."
But she acknowledged the issue is "complicated" as the Capitol was closed for security reasons due to potential civil unrest.
Simpson described virtual participation during the first week of the session as a mixed bag.
"I mean, it's been a lot. I think it's been more difficult for me, although it's always nice to be able to wear sweat pants and sit on my couch while watching the Legislature do its thing," Simpson said.
"Overall, I think it's more challenging to navigate the session virtually, connect with people and stay on top with everything that's going on."
But she said she didn't run into any technical issues that prevented her from tuning in or commenting in the session's first week. When it comes to public comment sessions, those have always faced issues including time limits when large groups show up to speak out on a bill, according to Simpson.
"There's certainly advantages to a virtual session with Zoom committee meetings, and that does give people more opportunity to directly participate no matter where you live or what your ZIP code is. It's a lot easier to be more directly involved in the process that way," Simpson said.
"At the same time, it's more challenging to connect with people and have the kind of conversations with folks on the hill that we're used to having during the session,' she said. "So we're all just adapting and trying to make it work."