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Safety concerns grow in Austin as the first day of the Texas legislative session dawns

Tuesday, January 12, 2021 by Jimmy Maas

Today is the opening day of the Texas legislative session. And after last week’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, security is a much bigger concern than it has been in recent memory. Lawmakers are having to consider what was unimaginable a week ago that demonstrations outside the state Capitol could turn into something much worse.

A pro-Trump rally is planned for today. One group participating is demanding “unfettered access” to the Capitol as it has had in previous sessions.

Former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt will open her first session as a senator for Austin in a state of unease. She says, from the coronavirus to armed demonstrators, there’s a lot to worry about. One thing that makes the situation in Texas different is that weapons are permitted inside, she said.

“I will not be inviting anyone to come with me, including my family, and I have requested my staff to stay home and to stay in contact remotely, so that there are fewer bodies to protect,” Eckhardt said.

She knows law enforcement and lawmakers are gathering as much information as they can, but she’s concerned that may not be enough.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said in a statement that it won’t detail specific plans, but it will have additional personnel on the Capitol grounds. Lawmakers were told Monday that members of the National Guard will be in Austin to assist DPS with opening day security.

State Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Dallas, announced she won’t be at Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony, citing the civil unrest and the risk for contracting the virus.

“I will not be attending the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol tomorrow,” Ramos said in a statement on Facebook. “(Rep.) Michelle Beckley and I will privately swear in, in order to reduce the risk of spread of Covid-19.”

The Legislature is taking some steps to protect members and staff from the virus. Some offices have been outfitted with clear plastic partitions between workspaces. Senate rules limit lawmakers to having only one family member with them on the floor. There will also be a limit of three guests per day per senator, and they will be spaced apart among the gallery seats.

Masks are not required for senators, but will be required for House members – at least on the first day.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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