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Regional Interests

Oregon State Capitol reopens to public after 16-month closure caused major tension

The Senate chambers at the Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021.
The Senate chambers at the Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021.

Following a 16-month closure due to the pandemic, the Oregon State Capitol reopened to the public Monday.

House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney issued a joint statement announcing the Capitol’s reopening now that more than 70% of Oregonians ages 18 and over have now been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We are extremely grateful to Oregonians for stepping up to help beat this pandemic. 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,” the statement said.

The decision to close the Capitol with limited entry for only legislators, staff and media caused tension between Republican lawmakers and Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers.

Republican members of the legislature vehemently opposed closure of the Capitol and have taken every opportunity to express their opinion that it is “the people’s building” and should be open to the public.

Early on in the recent legislative session, some Senate Republicans were routinely voting no on matters unrelated to COVID-19 in protest. Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, continued to vote no on every bill throughout the entire session to express his displeasure.

In the House, Republicans refused to suspend rules that require bills be read in their entirety on final passage. That slowed the pace of lawmaking to a crawl before a deal was struck to give House Republicans equal weight on an important committee that will help oversee redistricting later this year.

Perhaps the most feverish moment in the debate over closure of the Capitol took place in December 2020 when far right protesters — some armed — attempted to enter the locked building with help from then-state Rep. Mike Nearman, who opened a door for some demonstrators. Nearman’s actions were caught on camera and investigated, and he was eventually expelled unanimously by his House peers on June 10.

Although the building is open, many parts of the Capitol will remain inaccessible due to the Capitol Accessibility, Maintenance and Safety (CAMS) project taking place throughout the summer and into the fall. The Senate and House wings of the building will be closed through Dec. 31.

Lawmakers won’t return until at least late August when they’ll begin discussions around redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional district maps. A special session will likely follow sometime toward the later half of September.

According to the joint statement by Kotek and Courtney, both Democrats, the Oregon State Capitol Visitor Services staff will be bringing back many of the services they provide for visitors over the next few weeks:

The Capitol Store will be open from 10:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. for the next few weeks. Visit their website or Facebook page for updates.

Capitol tours will be self-guided for the week of July 12, but will be offered daily at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. beginning July 19. In mid-August, guided tours will be expanded to four tours a day. Tours of the Capitol rotunda tower won’t resume until 2022.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting