The Oregon Capitol in Salem reopened to the public Monday, July 12, ending a nearly 16-month lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Legislative leaders, who control the Capitol's operations, closed the statehouse to the public on March 18, 2020. The move came 10 days after Gov. Kate Brown had declared a state emergency because of the virus that would go on to kill more than 600,000 people in the United States.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said health officials had recommended access to the capitol be severely limited until infections fell below 50 per 100,000 population in Marion County, which includes Salem.
After Brown announced the lifting of most COVID-19 restrictions at the end of June, top legislators said the building would reopen July 12. Oregon has reached an Oregon Health Authority goal of getting at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine into 70% of eligible adults.
"With new guidance from the Oregon Health Authority and the lifting of county risk levels, we are excited to expand entry to the Capitol today to include members of the public," Kotek and Courtney said Monday in a joint statement.
The Oregon State Capitol Visitor Services said the Capitol Store would be open from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. for the next few weeks. Self-guided tours were allowed immediately, while guided tours will be offered daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. beginning July 19. Tours of the Capitol tower won't return until 2022.
Visitors will not be able to see the Senate and House chambers, which are undergoing renovations through the end of the year. The main entrance and rear entrance will be closed at time for the refurbishing work. During the closure, only state government officials, lawmakers, limited staff, some capitol employees, and journalists were allowed inside.
Opposed to limits
The House and Senate held three short special sessions in 2020 and the full 160-day regular session in 2021. Committees held virtual hearings, but lawmakers were required to come to Salem for the final floor votes.
The closure has been politically divisive, with Republicans who opposed many of the state limits imposed during the virus crisis demanding the public be allowed into the building when the Legislature was meeting.
Democratic leaders countered that the zip code that includes the Capitol had the highest per capita number of infections in the state during much of the pandemic. The House reported at least four outbreaks of COVID-19, which led to short shutdowns in floor sessions.
Two Republican lawmakers who were critics of the state's COVID-19 policies and declined to be vaccinated later reported they had been infected. Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, who is also chair of the Oregon Republican Party, told EO Media that he had tested positive, suffered a short period of ill effects, then recovered. Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, told conservative radio host Lars Larsen that he had become seriously ill with the virus, but did not require hospitalization.
Nearman's opposition to the closure led to his becoming the first legislator to be expelled in state history. The House voted 59-1 in June to force Nearman out of office for "disorderly conduct." Nearman had opened a side door to the Capitol for a crowd of right-wing demonstrators during a special session of the Legislature on Dec. 21. The crowd clashed with Oregon State Police near the rotunda and were eventually ejected.
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