Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said museums could reopen — along with other businesses — starting Friday, after being forced to close for several weeks to slow spread of the new coronavirus. But despite their historic value in the Lone Star State, the Texas state Capitol and the Governor's Mansion remain closed to visitors, and neither has plans to offer tours again anytime soon.
The State Preservation Board, which oversees a host of state museums and facilities including the stately Governor’s Mansion, the sprawling Capitol building and the Bullock Texas State History Museum, has not yet opened any of its facilities to the general public. Abbott chairs the State Preservation Board alongside Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has vociferously championed reopening businesses for the sake of the state’s economy.
In a statement on its website, the Governor’s Mansion announced it has curtailed all tours to “support the health and safety of our community and the First Family.” It will not be taking reservations for the “immediate future.” Neither will the state Capitol, where free guided tours are normally offered every 30 to 45 minutes during the week to view the historic halls and the House and Senate chambers where state legislators make laws. The Capitol's legislative offices remain open.
The Governor’s Mansion, which has housed Texas governors since 1856, is considered a historic site. Before the lockdown, free guided tours of the Governor’s Mansion were available three days a week, according to the state-managed website.
John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, said there is a difference between other museums and the Capitol and Governor’s Mansion.
“The Capitol is an office building. The governor’s mansion is a residence, and the family lives there,” Wittman said. “This is exactly within the governor’s guidelines.”
Meanwhile, Chris Currens, a spokesperson for the State Preservation Board, said a museum can be defined as a cultural institution. While "the Governor's Mansion is a cultural institution, it's also a residence," Currens said.
The Bullock Museum, where visitors can view Santa Anna's dueling pistols and Stephen F. Austin's maps of Texas, also remains closed. Currens said the museum is drawing up a timeline to reopen soon. When it does, it will presumably be the first of the board’s entities to do so. Each entity under the board has its own logistical challenges to work around before setting a reopen date, Currens said.
“We’re personally working on a plan to reopen that's safe for all the visitors and employers,” Currens said. He added that the governor’s reopen order was “permissive, not unilateral.”
No date has been chosen yet to reopen properties, including the Governor’s Mansion and the Capitol, to visitors. There are a lot of “moving parts,” Currens said.
“Security, safety, public hygiene. We want to share the story of Texas, but we have to do it right,” he added.
In a press conference earlier this week, Abbott said the state had succeeded in tamping down the novel coronavirus and rolled out a roadmap to reopening the state’s economy. Among the list of institutions allowed to open were museums and libraries, provided that they keep capacity to 25% and close down interactive exhibits.
Abbott said his order was not a requirement but merely permission to reopen, leaving the field clear for museums and libraries operated by private owners, universities and local governments to chart their own courses forward. But the “state will work to open its museums by May 1 or soon thereafter,” Abbott said.
Patrick’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The Texas Historical Commission is another state agency that operates museums and historically significant sites across the state. A few historical sites are open, according to the commission’s website.