Utah Capitol is closed to the public for start of legislative session

Officials say they are taking the steps as a precaution, not in response to specific threats.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Pro-Trump protesters gather for a rally at the Utah State Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. The Legislature has decided to close the Capitol to the public for the first few days of the legislative session out of fears about possible violence.

The worry over violence surrounding the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden is prompting the closure of the Utah Capitol to the public for the first part of next week as the 2021 legislative session is scheduled to get underway Tuesday.

The FBI has warned that armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitals and Washington, D.C., surrounding Biden’s inauguration next Wednesday. An armed protest by a group affiliated with the far-right anti-government Boogaloo movement is scheduled for the Utah state Capitol on Sunday.

The threat of violence has grown since a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed into the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to overturn November’s election that gave the presidency to Biden. Five people died following that attack, including a member of law enforcement.

Public safety officials, Gov. Spencer Cox and legislative leaders have been in contact with federal law enforcement to discuss possible violence, although no specific threats or plans have been communicated. The closure comes out of an abundance of caution. Officials will reassess whether to reopen the building to the public at the end of next week.

Legislators, staffers and interns will be given the opportunity to work remotely during the closure. That shouldn’t be much of a roadblock to the Legislature conducting its business as they’ve had many members and the public participate remotely due to the pandemic.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he does not anticipate any interruptions in legislative business due to the closure.

“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,” he said in a news release.

“As lawmakers, we take our responsibility to govern seriously,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, in an email statement. “Though this session will be unconventional, we recognize the value of public input and have worked to fine-tune a process that enables remote public comment. We encourage all Utahns to utilize this new process throughout the session.”

“We’ve been briefed about the situation every day,” said Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City. “We’re going to protect the Capitol, the legislators and the public. We’re going to protect our democracy and we need to be in session to take care of the state’s business.”

Legislative leaders stress they have not been informed about any imminent or specific threats to the Capitol. While they say safety is the best course of action, they don’t want to exacerbate the situation by overreacting.

“There is some concern that we could see some violence, but there’s also a fear that too much media attention might drive more people to show up at these protests from both sides. That’s when things can get out of hand,” said House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.

Gov. Cox said he supports the closure in a news release.

“I fully support the Legislature’s careful decision to shift legislative business online,” he said. “We appreciate the counsel of the Utah Highway Patrol in monitoring potential social unrest and keeping the public, state employees and the Capitol building safe.”

Salt Lake City Hall is also being boarded up as a precaution, The Salt Lake Tribune confirmed.

“Out of an abundance of caution ahead of expected events in Salt Lake City we are taking steps to protect some of our city buildings,” said a spokesperson for Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s office.

Details for Salt Lake County government building security are still being worked out, according to a spokesperson.

The Utah Highway Patrol said it was increasing security by keeping 40 troopers in Utah who had been scheduled to help with security at the inauguration in Washington, D.C.

UHP Spokesman Nick Street said threats have been made against elected officials in Utah as well as other states. He said the highway patrol takes every threat seriously and is providing security based on credible threats.

Street said officers from the Salt Lake City Police Department will help the Highway Patrol on Sunday. The Capitol grounds will remain open most days, but troopers plan to form a line in front of the building on Sunday, said Street.

The Utah National Guard will also be available to help the UHP, according to a statement from Gov. Cox’s office.

Street said the department isn’t sure if there will be violence or not. Officers are prepared to defend the rights of protesters to gather peacefully and bear arms, he said. The officers are also prepared to defend the Capitol if anything turns “nefarious.” He said nobody will breach the Capitol on the Highway Patrols’ watch.

“We know what happened last Wednesday,” he said. “We have this pit in our stomach of what happened in our nation’s capital ... then to have credible information coming down from our federal counterparts that this is planned for all 50 state’s capitals in the coming week, we can’t ignore that.”

Street said it has been more difficult for law enforcement to track extremist groups online since social media sites have started kicking some of them off their platforms. It makes it harder for those groups to organize but also makes it harder for law enforcement to know what they are planning, he said.

Street said police are hoping that people will report suspicious activity if they think someone is planning to overthrow the government.

“Everybody has the crazy uncle or cousin that they see every year at Thanksgiving and maybe they heard something a little off recently,” he said. “Maybe they are concerned this individual might have that underlying tone that they are wishing to overthrow our system of government and put a cog in the wheels of our democracy. If they have that kind of feeling in the pit of their stomach please reach out to the Department of Public Safety.”

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Leia Larsen contributed to this story.