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Plywood comes off, National Guard leaves Capitol as protests fizzle — but Springfield still wary as coronavirus lingers

State senators canceled next week’s session at the Capitol over coronavirus concerns. But while fears over the public health crisis remained, the threat of violent protests eased significantly and some sense of normalcy returned to the historic Capitol Complex.

A worker removes sheets of plywood from windows at the Illinois State Capitol on Thursday.
A worker removes sheets of plywood from windows at the Illinois State Capitol on Thursday.
Andrew Sullender/Chicago Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD — With one public safety threat behind them, state officials on Thursday sent National Guard troops home and took down the plywood intended to protect windows and doors at the state Capitol from violent protests that never materialized.

But with another safety threat still raging, lawmakers cancelled an upcoming legislative session at the Capitol over coronavirus concerns.

Citing the difficulties in “legislating in the midst of a global pandemic,” Democratic and Republican state Senate leaders issued a joint statement canceling the session that was to begin Tuesday at the Capitol.

Senators will continue to hold remote committee hearings, state Senate President Don Harmon and Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie said.

“It is our intent to have the proper procedures in place for a safe return to Springfield in February,” the two said, referring to the next scheduled session days, slated to begin Feb. 9.

Senate officials did not respond to requests to explain what measures they hoped would make the February session safer.

The House, which met earlier this month at the Bank of Springfield Center to allow for social distancing, did not have any session days scheduled for next week. House members were not planning to return until Feb. 2, for a three-day session that as of Thursday had not been canceled.

But while fears over the public health crisis remained in the state capital, the threat of violent protests eased significantly and at least some sense of normalcy returned to the historic Capitol Complex.

“It was determined that our help was no longer needed at the state Capitol, and so those troops have packed up and most of them headed home today,” Lt. Col. Brad Leighton, the public affairs director for the Illinois National Guard, said Thursday evening. “We actually stopped operations last night, and today was just packing up.”

Members of the Illinois National Guard and the Capitol Police get setup in front of a road closure at the Illinois State Capitol earlier this month.
Members of the Illinois National Guard and the Capitol Police get setup in front of a road closure at the Illinois State Capitol on Wednesday.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

As of Thursday morning, plywood still covered the entrances to the Capitol, but crews had the sheets down by afternoon and were going to work removing the plywood barriers that had also been put over the windows.

The door and window coverings went up Friday. Roads around the state Capitol were closed, and 250 Illinois National Guard members were activated, based on FBI warnings about planned armed protests in state capitals across the nation in the days leading up to the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Plywood is removed from a door at the Illinois State Capitol on Thursday,
Plywood is removed from a door at the Illinois State Capitol on Thursday,
Andrew Sullender/Chicago Sun-Times

But the large protests never materialized in Springfield.

A “Back the Blue” rally to support police only drew two participants on the steps of the capitol Saturday afternoon. It had been a regular weekly demonstration over the past month. The event’s organizers said that they had told their followers to stay home this week because of the heavy police presence.

“We didn’t bring more people today because we didn’t want to have any excuse for people to think we could potentially be dangerous,” one of the organizers, Ashley Ramos, told the Sun-Times on Saturday. “So hopefully we won’t have this issue with the Capitol police when we come back next week.”

Protest organizer Ashley Ramos at the Illinois State Capitol on Saturday.
Protest organizer Ashley Ramos at the Illinois State Capitol on Saturday.
Andrew Sullender/Chicago Sun-Times file

Inauguration Day itself came and went with no violent protests in Washington, D.C. – or in Springfield.

And that was a signal to return to normal on at least one front.

Crews remove plywood at the Illinois State Capitol on Thursday.
Crews remove plywood at the Illinois State Capitol on Thursday.
Andrew Sullender/Chicago Sun-Times.

“Secretary of State Police affirmed to the Office of the Capitol Architect that they may remove the plywood from the Capitol Building,” said Henry Haupt, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office.

“While this was deemed the appropriate time to remove the plywood from the Capitol, I want to emphasize that Secretary of State Capitol Police will remain alert to best ensure the safety of the Capitol Building and the Capitol Complex,” he said.