AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Texas Capitol grounds reopened to the public for the first time in months on Wednesday.
According to the State Preservation Board, which maintains the Capitol grounds, the grounds will remain open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. starting Wednesday.
“The building will remain closed,” SPB spokesperson Chris Currens confirmed in an email this week.
The SPB closed access to Capitol back in March in hopes of reducing the chance for exposure to COVID-19.
The grounds were closed at the end of May following protests which resulted in injury to Texas Department of Public Safety personnel, destruction of state property and damage to the Capitol building, according to SPB officials.
“The decision to keep the grounds closed involved DPS’s recommendation that the most sustainable, effective, and safe course of action to protect state property was to control entry to the grounds,” Currens said in a Dec. 4 email.
DPS, which provides security for the Capitol building and grounds, forwarded inquiries about Capitol grounds reopening to SPB.
A follow-up inquiry to SPB about what triggered the reopening of the grounds was not immediately returned.
Nicole Smith was one of the first people to tread up to the Capitol steps Wednesday morning. Since moving to Austin from Houston in August, she has stopped by outside the gates on tri-weekly walks.
“Today when I saw that the gates were open — I’m just so happy to be here,” she said, after snapping a photo of the Capitol from beyond the south steps. “I feel like this is huge for our city, this is huge for our state and our nation that we go back to where we were as a people before this happened to us.”
“I feel like the gates have been opened, not only on the Capitol property, but in our lives,” Smith said. “Like, I feel like we’ve entered into a new season.”
Smith, who homeschools two of her children, said once the Capitol building itself opens, she plans to bring them to take a tour.
Lawmakers have not identified a timeline for public reopening of the Capitol amid the pandemic, but are being watched closely to release more information ahead of the first day of the upcoming legislative session on Jan. 12.
“I’m so happy that the Capitol grounds are being reopened,” said State Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock. “This is the people’s house and it’s it’s something that we all share as as Texans and we all deserve to have a right to have access to our Capitol.”
“I don’t see much public health risk for folks having access to the grounds if they’re not gathering indoors and not gathering in large groups,” Talarico said. “So I think it’s a long-overdue decision.”
State Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, a vocal opponent of the closure of the Capitol and surrounding property, said he opposed any restriction of access to the taxpayer-funded land.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Middleton said of the reopening of the grounds.
“I think it should have happened sooner,” he stated.
“Teachers have to teach in person, legislators should certainly have to legislate in person, and we’re not some special protected class as elected officials, you know, we shouldn’t be putting all these protections in place that are treating us differently and better, frankly, than your average grocery store worker or somebody else in our community that’s had to work throughout this entire crisis,” Middleton said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic.