ST. GEORGE — The Utah State Capitol will be closed to the public this upcoming legislative session due to the potential of violent protests taking place, as well as to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The Utah Legislature announced Wednesday that public participation in the 45-day legislative session will be conducted virtually. This decision comes in the wake of the Utah Highway Patrol raising concerns over protests planned for the State Capitol coinciding with the start of the legislative session Monday.
Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, told St. George News on Wednesday that the UHP plans to keep the building closed indefinitely due to a potential threat of violence from demonstrations and the spread of COVID-19.
Brooks and other lawmakers were in Salt Lake City on Wednesday being updated on the situation.
“Personally, I feel extremely safe at the Capitol and have tremendous faith in the UHP,” Brooks said.
News media has reported the potential for violent protests and upheaval in Washington, D.C. and across the nation – namely in the capital cities of each state – next week in relation to the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. The possibility of these protests taking place follows the protest in the nation’s capital last week that turned deadly for a Capitol Police officer and others when protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol building during a joint session of Congress. The day’s protests were held by Trump supporters who recited claims of the presidential election being rigged and stolen.
The same day, protesters in Utah, some who were also armed with firearms, protested at the Utah State Capitol. Unlike the protest in Washington, D.C, the one in Utah was largely uneventful.
In a call for peace and calm in the wake of the incident, President Donald Trump said, “There has been reporting that additional demonstrations are being planned in the coming days, both here in Washington and across the county. I have been briefed by the U.S. Secret Service on the potential threats. Every American deserves to have their voice heard in a respectful and peaceful way. That is your First Amendment right. But I cannot emphasize that there must be no violence, no law breaking and no vandalism of any kind.”
Utah Senate President J. Stuart Adams said in a statement that the upcoming session of the Legislature would be “unconventional,” yet added measures have been put in place and are being refined to enable public input through remote means.
“We recognize the value of public input and have worked to fine-tune a process that enables remote public comment,” Adams said. “We encourage all Utahns to utilize this new process throughout the session.”
Over the last 10 months, legislative staff have worked to initiate remote public participation, providing all Utahns the opportunity to participate in the legislative process.
Audio and video improvements permit virtual access to all legislative proceedings. Utahns can now watch presentations and spontaneously request to provide input during a live committee meeting as if they were in a committee room.
“Our primary concerns are for the safety of those who would be in the Capitol under ordinary circumstances and for the Legislature to be able to conduct the business of the people without interruption,” Speaker of the House Brad Wilson said in Wednesday’s statement. “It is unfortunate we have to take this step but we have the procedures and technologies in place to allow us to adjust and move forward. We will work closely with the Utah Highway Patrol as we evaluate conditions and determine when in-person options can resume.”
The public can access all committee meetings and legislative floor debates at le.utah.gov.
Brooks said lawmakers were given the choice to attend the session in person or virtually. He said he intends to attend in person.
“The Capitol is a very secure place,” he said, adding that he also has “a lot of confidence in the people of Utah” not to resort to violent protests. However, he followed that up by saying people should strive to have their voices heard in “a peaceful and lawful way.”
Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, said in a text to St. George News that, “As every possible measure is taken to keep our beautiful Utah Capitol building a safe place for everyone, we must be sure that the Constitutional rights and freedom of the public to have access to their lawmakers is 100% protected.”
Another Southern Utah legislator who plans to attend the session in person is Rep.V. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara.
“I plan to be there as I feel the work we’re doing there needs to move forward,” he said.
Concerning the possibility of protests, Snow said he supports the right of citizens to peacefully protest, yet condemned what happened in Washington, D.C. last week.
“It was completely unacceptable, and I condemn it in the strong terms,” he said.
The 2021 general session of the Utah Legislature begins Monday and runs through March 5.
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