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Fears of protest violence prompt Utah Legislature to ban public from start of session

The U.S. and state flag fly at half-staff at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in honor of Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick, who died from injuries he suffered when supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
The U.S. and state flag fly at half-staff at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in honor of Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick, who died from injuries he suffered when supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With widespread protests expected across the country in the days ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, the Utah Legislature announced that the beginning of the 2021 session will be closed to the public.

The Wednesday announcement comes just days before the scheduled start of the annual 45-day session on Tuesday, Jan. 19.

An internal FBI report made public last weekend warns of plans for armed protests at all 50 state capitols and in Washington, D.C., in the lead-up to the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, elevating fears of more bloodshed after a deadly siege last week at the U.S. Capitol.

The decision was made “out of an abundance of caution,” according to legislative leaders, and comes after the Utah Highway Patrol raised concerns about protests planned at the state Capitol coinciding with the start of the session.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, noted the body has been able to develop a robust process for accommodating online public comment and participation thanks to a series of interim meetings that took place under restrictions wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As lawmakers, we take our responsibility to govern seriously,” Adams said in a statement. “We will convene as scheduled in a manner that is safe for everyone as we work on behalf of Utahns. Though this session will be unconventional, we recognize the value of public input and have worked to fine-tune a process that will enable remote public comment.

“We encourage all Utahns to utilize this new process.”

Upgrades to online audio and video tools allow for virtual access to all legislative proceedings that are open to the public and, according to lawmakers, enables participants to “spontaneously request to provide input” during live committee hearings.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the decision to postpone in-person public access was driven by safety concerns.

“Our primary concerns are for 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,” Wilson said in a statement. “It is unfortunate we have to take this step but we have 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 UHP on Wednesday said only one permit has been issued for a protest on the grounds of the Capitol between now and Jan. 20. That event, scheduled for noon on Sunday, is expected to draw between 500 and 1,500 participants. UHP said it is coordinating with other state agencies, the Utah National Guard and local law enforcement in preparation for that event.

Numerous posts have appeared on social media platforms about who could be participating in the protest and some outlets have reported the Sunday gathering at the state Capitol will include armed members of far-right political groups. Other voices have claimed that armed protests at state capitols are being staged by far-left organizations as a tactic to blame conservatives for violent behavior.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he agrees with the decision to close the start of the legislative session to the public and added that extra security will be provided at the state Capitol and the Utah National Guard will be available if help if needed.

“I fully support the Legislature’s careful decision to shift legislative business online,” he said in a prepared statement. “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.”

Contributing: Associated Press