The cloud of the pandemic and the fear of violence hovered over the Georgia Capitol on Monday as lawmakers returned to Atlanta to begin the 2021 legislative session.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, compared the current environment to previous eras of American turmoil, including two world wars, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

“We begin this session in another period of state and national upheaval,” the speaker said, citing the pandemic and last summer’s police shootings that served as “tragic and brutal reminders that the fight for equality and justice is not over.”

The session began under increased police presence, precautions taken due to lawmakers gathering less than a week after a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol after he falsely claimed the November election had been stolen from them. The riot left at least five people dead, including a Capitol police officer.

In Atlanta on Monday, police vehicles and heavily armed law enforcement were posted on the streets. Some wore dark-green military-style uniforms. Barricades around the Gold Dome kept the public and potential protesters at bay, though no demonstrators appeared to gather at the Capitol on the cold, rainy day.

“They’re taking security very seriously,” Ralston said. “And I have full confidence they’re going to be ready to do whatever needs to be done to protect the members, the staff, the public, the media and all the people that have to be here.”

That includes keeping legislators safe from COVID-19. Masks are required in the Senate and House chambers and committee rooms, and lawmakers and staff are being tested twice a week for the virus. At least four legislators missed the first day of session because he or she had either contracted COVID-19 or had been exposed to it.

The public has been encouraged to stay at home during the legislative session, leaving the normally bustling hallways much quieter. Almost everyone wore a mask, including Capitol Police who up until Monday had not been required to do so. Several Democratic lawmakers also wore face shields.

Mandated testing was held early Monday for returning lawmakers and staff, who will be tested again Thursday before going home for the long weekend.

The chambers handled some business Monday, with all 236 lawmakers being sworn in to office, many for the first time.

As Senate Democratic Leader Gloria Butler of Stone Mountain welcomed the new members of the Senate, she lamented that they had been stripped of celebrating the occasion while surrounded by friends and family.

She also urged her colleagues to put aside their focus on the outcome of the presidential election and focus on Georgia, though that may be unlikely.

In recent weeks, committees in the House and Senate aired Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. And before last week’s Capitol attack, some Georgia senators wrote to Vice President Mike Pence, asking him to delay congressional certification of the presidential election “to allow for further investigation of fraud, irregularities, and misconduct in Georgia’s election.”

Butler said the Legislature should instead focus on helping the state recover from the pandemic.

“It’s our duty to do all that we can to support Georgia’s families, to support medical providers, to support small businesses and schools through trust in science and sound policies,” Butler said. “We want to lift people up so that our state can recover. We must not be distracted any longer, so let the work begin. Let’s get it done.”

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.

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