AUSTIN, Texas - The chains are off, and the gates are now open at the Texas State Capitol. The entire complex was put into lockdown back in the middle of March, but Tuesday, the massive doors leading inside the main building constantly swung open.
Among those there for a visit were Mike and Marilyn Neal who recently moved to Austin.
"We saw it on the news last night and I thought we better get down before the crowds come," said Mike Neal.
Capacity under the pink dome will be monitored as well as social distancing. Hours of operation are Monday through Friday from 9 am till 6 pm and closed on the weekends for deep cleaning. Capitol grounds are open 7 days a week, but only from 7 am to 7 pm. The Visitors Center has typical business workday hours.
For almost 300 days, 292 according to a spokesman with the State Preservation Board, only a few select people deemed essential to state government have been allowed inside. John Whitman who works for the governor told FOX7 it’s been a lonely place.
"It's been pretty quiet, it's been pretty quiet. Obviously, with the pandemic it's been very few people in the Capitol and like I said it's great to see people back here," said Whitman.
However, the Capitol is not a free range. There are several COVID-19 related rules that must be followed:
- Public access only through the northside entrance
- Masks required at all times while inside
- Public tours are not being offered at this time
- Sponsored events in meeting rooms will not be allowed
- All deliveries must be done at the loading dock
- Those making deliveries cannot leave the dock
Free COVID-19 testing will be available in a tent on the north plaza. Getting inside the tent, and not the main building, is what brought Kourtni Mason.
"I'm super grateful for that. I work in the service industry and at a gym so it's nice to know that this is accessible for the public," said Mason.
The legislative process is also expected to change. Drew Springer in a way personifies that change. On Tuesday he was a member of the House, but on Wednesday he will be sworn in as a new state Senator.
"I can tell you from the members that I've talked to, they want to go above and beyond to make sure the public is involved and whether that's setting up zooms, whether that's telling them you send me an email and I'll read it into the transcript at committee hearings and we just have to be able to go that extra mile. And especially those with underlying health conditions that may be extremely worried about traveling to the Capitol. We've got to make sure their voices continue to be heard," said Springer.
The opening day of the legislature is Tuesday, Jan. 12th. Officials say the ceremony for that day will be much smaller and a lot shorter.