Is it safe to visit the pink-domed Texas State Capitol right now?
The short answer is “Yes.” The 133-year-old Capitol building reopened to the public in early January after being closed to sightseers since March. But the rules of visiting have changed, not only because the city of Austin and Travis County are currently under COVID-19 Stage 5 risk guidelines.
The riots of January 6 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., prompted a lockdown of the Texas Capitol building and Capitol Complex. Protests in Austin on that date—when the U.S. Senate certified President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory—and in the following days have been small and peaceful. Still, security remains heightened, especially with a new state legislative session getting underway.
The State Preservation Board, which maintains the Texas Capitol, said in a statement that the agency is welcoming back the public to a “safe environment when persons are on the grounds and in the public area of the buildings.” That means facemasks are required to be worn over the mouth and nose at all times inside the Capitol building. Visitor capacity limits will be observed, and social distancing will be required in all public areas. There are no guided tours happening currently or space available for sponsored events, but there are brochures and maps available for self-guided tours.
The Capitol is hosting events and exhibits related to legislative functions and state agencies, but those, too, have limits on attendance size and eschew things like interactive touch screens or anything else that could be considered dangerous in the spread of COVID. The State Preservation Board says it will keep its Capitol Events Calendar up to date on its website at tspb.texas.gov.
Until further notice, the building is closed to the public on weekends for cleaning. On weekdays, the Capitol is open to visitors 9 a.m.-6 p.m., with the Capitol Visitors Center open until 5 p.m. The Capitol Grounds are open all week 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
As for entrances, there is only one open to the public: the north door of the Capitol. The State Preservation Board says that it’s offering free, 15-minute COVID-19 testing for visitors, which they recommend before entering the building. No personal data is being collected for the 15-minute rapid testing.
The Texas Legislature, which meets biennially, began a new session on Jan. 12 and may have specific guidelines for visitors to those chambers. The State Preservation Board encourages constituents to check with the offices of their state representatives when the Legislature is in session. Entry and seating in the chambers is expected to be limited for the foreseeable future, and early word from the House and the Senate is there will be temperature checks, masking requirements, and limits on family members visiting the desks of members.
- When visiting the House and Senate chambers, be sure to look up. The light bulbs in the chandeliers’ star designs spell out the name TEXAS.
- The Texas Capitol is almost 15 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol. It’s not the tallest state capitol, but is the largest of the state capitols in size.
- Stand in the center of the rotunda and start speaking if you want to hear a stunning echo.
- The Blue Ocoli Room is off-limits to any visitors, but you can see the blue windows from the northside building.
Photo by Will van Overbeek