The Statehouse Will Never Be the Same Again

Sad Boi.

Don’t know if it was the heavy security or the heavy snow that deterred the diehard Trumpers on Sunday, but the expected rally didn’t materialize. Now we have to worry about Inauguration Day, when the police will once again be out in force outside and inside the Statehouse.

That won’t be the end of it, of course. Whether the “Stop the Steal” crowd shows up on Wednesday or not, there’s still a lot of folks who think the election was rigged, and they’re angry about it. Most will be peaceful, but it only takes one. There will be an ongoing threat, which means heightened security around government buildings.

That means the Statehouse, as we knew and loved it, is a thing of the past. We’ve long been proud of the openness of The People’s House; the ability of anyone to just walk into the building or into a committee hearing or hobnob with legislators in the cafeteria, the governor and lieutenant governor holding open coffee hours for all comers. It’s just charming to be able to walk the halls and stumble across lawmakers and officeholders and public officials of every rank, and have casual conversations with them all.

It’s a certainty that there will be painful discussions about Statehouse security before lawmakers adjourn for the year. Out of an abundance of caution, new measures will be taken.

Ready for metal detectors at the entrances? A substantially augmented Capitol Police force, probably with body armor and guns? State troopers on hand during legislative work days? A tactical team on site? A lot more locked doors? Security checkpoints outside the House and Senate chambers? Limited or no access to all the hearing rooms unless you’re on the witness list? I mean, those committee meetings get really crowded and each room has only a single exit. Imagine being trapped in there with an armed wingnut.

Wait, I’m not finished. And I haven’t even gotten to the pandemic yet.

The building has, IIRC, four entrances. At least one and probably two will be locked at all times. Because the entryways are so small, they’ll have to build enclosures outside the entrances to accommodate metal detectors and other screening methods.

That charming mechanical arm that blocks public access to the parking lot reserved for public officials? That’ll be replaced with something much more formidable. The fact that, on the Statehouse’s east side, you can practically drive up to the building? Forget about it. Expect new barriers to block vehicles from getting anywhere close. A lot of nice thick brutalist concrete pillars. Police vehicles in conspicuous locations. Limited or no access to Governor Davis Street and Governor Aiken Street. Maybe the same for Baldwin and Court streets.

I’m not a security expert, so there are probably other measures I’m not thinking of. Barricaded windows. Police stationed on rooftops or other viewing spots. Bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling the building and nearby parking lots. Fencing around the wide-open perimeter.

Would they possibly restrict access to State Street? Could be, especially if enhanced security is extended to all the state buildings in the Capitol District. Those charming old houses where the Secretary of State and State Auditor are located look awfully vulnerable right now.

Think I’m overreacting? I’m not so sure. They won’t do all of this in one go. But any incident from now on will trigger further security measures. You could see most or all of this within a few years.

Now, let’s talk Covid. The vaccines are slowly making their way into Vermonters’ arms. It’ll take months to vaccinate enough people to achieve herd immunity. And we’ve already seen a new and more transmissible strain of the virus start to spread. Hopefully the vaccines will protect against new iterations of coronavirus, but who knows. I’m not certain we’re anywhere near throwing away our masks and returning to “normal” activity.

And the Statehouse, as it customarily does business, is a goddamn petri dish. One big golden-domed superspreader. Narrow hallways, tiny meeting rooms. Given the pace of vaccinations, I expect the entire 2021 session will be conducted remotely. I don’t know about 2022.

There’s a non-zero chance that we’ve entered a new age of pandemic threats. If there’s any question about public safety, the House and Senate will have to rethink everything. In the short run, that might mean committee hearings open only to lawmakers and witnesses, with video access for all others. Or spreading out committee hearings to other buildings nearby. Or even finding big spaces for House floor sessions, like maybe in the B.O.R. Arena.

There was some talk last session about a new Legislative Office Building that would include much larger committee rooms. It was dismissed at the time as fiscally unfeasible.

Is it now? Or will health considerations, plus the opportunity of incorporating security features into a brand-new building, force reconsideration?

The price tag for all of this would be quite high, and the ongoing cost for extra security personnel will strain the budget. The People’s House will be that in name only. But these are the times we live in.

1 thought on “The Statehouse Will Never Be the Same Again

  1. Walter Carpenter

    “The People’s House will be that in name only.”

    You’re probably right. I’ve spent ten years up under that golden bubble as an activist and, in general, it was fun.. tough, but fun… to be there with all that was going on. Zoom is not the same. I expect that with all that is going on, we may see a zoom legislature for a long while with the statehouse just a tourist attraction.

    Reply

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