Shelly Moss stopped Tuesday morning outside the Massachusetts House chamber, where her tour guide prepared to detail some of its history. It’s exactly what the Southlake, Texas, resident was hoping for on her trip to Boston: a window into the “historic importance” of the building.
Her tour was a bit of history itself, too. It was the first one given inside the building in nearly two years.
“I had no idea how special it was going to be,” Moss said with a laugh. “I guess we were the first ones brave enough to call.”
The State House reopened to the public on Tuesday, 708 days after legislative leaders closed its doors at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With it, came new rules and mandates, out-of-town tourists again strolling its marbled hallways, and large doses of symbolism.
People could again access the “people’s house,” stripping away yet another vestige of COVID-induced closures. It also ended what was the longest-running closure of a state capitol in the continental United States since the virus first gripped the country in 2020.
What it did not usher in was a rush of activity. Timed for the start of school vacation week in Massachusetts, the building remained largely quiet beyond a handful of tours and an in-person committee hearing featuring Governor Charlie Baker. The House and Senate held brief informal sessions, each with a smattering of public visitors in the gallery. Some offices were still dark or closed.
“We are surprised there are so few people,” said Sallyann Holley of Epsom, England, who was exploring the building with Claire Harrow during a two-week vacation in Boston. “If it was London, it would have been rammed.”
In a building where officials go to great lengths to preserve history, the initial trickle of visitors was greeted with some notable changes from when the building was last open on March 16, 2020.
Officials constructed a white tent outside the Ashburton Park Entrance — currently the only public entryway while parts of the building undergo construction — where court officers were stationed to check staff IDs and, for the first time, whether visitors had proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test to enter the building.
Masks are required in the building, and the entryway featured layers of security, including State Police, court officers, and the building’s traditional gatekeepers, park rangers.
Inside, the heavy, wooden double doors to Baker’s executive suite were back open, with the smiling portraits of Deval Patrick, Mitt Romney, and other recent governors available for all to see in the reception area. Tour guides milled about Nurses Hall, ready to lead tourists through the building. They ultimately led five, according to a spokeswoman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office, including for visitors from Salt Lake City and San Francisco, as well as “local visitors doing research for school.”
Some legislators’ office doors were ajar, with lights on and staff inside.
“We’re open!” Representative Sean Garballey of Arlington called out to a reporter from the lobby of the fifth-floor office he shares with other lawmakers and staff.
But other lawmakers’ office doors remained closed, with signs telling potential visitors they were only meeting those with appointments or providing a phone number they could call. Others were darkened, with little signs of life. The door to Senator Patricia D. Jehlen’s fourth-floor office included a sign, dated Tuesday, informing those who stopped by that it was not “open for public access” and that the Somerville Democrat and her staff were working remotely.
About two dozen people were on hand to watch Baker testify in person before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Revenue about $700 million in tax breaks he proposed with his annual state budget plan. Spectators mostly included legislative aides, reporters, and staffers for Baker and his budget chief, Michael Heffernan, who also was testifying.
Seven representatives and senators were on hand in-person for the hearing, the committee’s first that wasn’t entirely virtual.
Senator Adam Hinds, the committee’s Senate chairman, initially said Monday that the hearing, while livestreamed, would not physically be open to the public. But the committee’s House chairman, Representative Mark Cusack, said Tuesday that no member of the public would be barred from attending what was a public hearing unless they were disruptive.
Baker described the experience as somewhat of a return to what he remembered.
“The last few times we were actually in this room before the pandemic started, you’d have to step over the reporters to get to your seat,” Baker said, referencing how photographers and reporters would often sit along the floor for well-attended hearings. “I’m glad to have the building open, I think the building should be open.”
In opening the State House doors, legislative leaders agreed to require all those age 5 or older to show proof of a vaccination against COVID-19, or a negative test from within the last day, to access the building.
Visitors also are limited to entering the building between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. but can remain in the building if the House or the Senate is still in session “for the purposes of viewing the session.”
The protocols largely align with those sketched out last week by legislative leaders when they announced the State House would reopen. But it also puts the State House at odds with shifting rules in Boston and elsewhere.
On Friday, Mayor Michelle Wu ended the city’s proof-of-vaccination requirement for indoor dining, gyms, and entertainment venues, citing a trio of metrics that fell below previously established thresholds. City officials said they would keep the city’s mask requirement for indoor public spaces in place, with plans to review it in the “coming days.”
Baker said the state would ease its mask mandate in schools next week. The governor previously lifted a statewide indoor mask mandate last spring, and recently relaxed the state’s advice by no longer recommending that healthy, fully vaccinated residents wear masks in indoor public settings.
State House officials said Monday that they plan to review the building’s protocols weekly or “more frequently as needed.”
When the doors first opened Tuesday, it was primarily staff who were coming to work — and reporters there to witness it. Rick Branca, a former legislative aide and now a lobbyist, arrived shortly after 9 a.m., stepping into the State House for the first time since 2020.
He said it was “strange,” particularly now that he was no longer working in the Legislature.
“It’s just good to be back,” Branca said, “and I’m glad the building’s open.”
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.