The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City’s biggest art museum, opened to visitors on Thursday for the first time since the pandemic hit the city. (August 27)
LOS ANGELES — It’s not just Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and other theme parks urging California state health officials to allow them to reopen with appropriate coronavirus restrictions. .
Museum advocates are doing the same, arguing they’ve been assigned to the “incorrect risk category” and don’t pose the same threat as movie theaters and gyms.
“From what I’m seeing, California is one of the – if not, the most – restrictive,” Laura Lott, president and CEO of American Alliance of Museums, told USA TODAY.
About three-quarters of museums across the country have reopened in some capacity with safety precautions such as timed tickets, temperature checks and mandatory masks, Lott said. Some science museums with interactive exhibits are even developing apps to ensure a contactless experience, she said.
The Golden State, however, hasn’t backed off its prohibitive stance.
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all museums to close in mid-March.
Some were allowed to reopen on June 12. Less than a month later, however, on July 1, Newsom ordered them to close again for three weeks, citing a rise in COVID-19 cases.
The Catalina Island Museum in Avalon, California, expects to lose $500,000 in revenue in just a couple of months due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Catalina Island Museum)
Now, museums have been given the chance to reopen with restrictions but only in counties where cases have declined.
In San Francisco, which has entered the state’s least restrictive tier, museums were allowed to resume indoor operations at 25% capacity in September.
But as cases surge nationally and statewide, Mayor London Breed on Friday paused reopening plans scheduled for Tuesday, which included expanding indoor capacity for museums and other businesses to 50%, ABC7 reported.
Some museum advocates are asking state officials to modify its coronavirus reopening guidelines – which places museums in the same risk category as dine-in restaurants, movie theaters and gyms – to allow them to reopen at 25% indoor capacity even in the state’s most infected counties.
“Museums have been placed in the incorrect risk category,” Celeste DeWald, executive director of the California Association of Museums, wrote in a July 15 letter to the California Department of Public Health.
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In another letter, the mayors of Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and Santa Ana asked Newsom and state health officials to modify the state’s reopening guidelines for museums.
“Given the role that museums play in enriching the lives of visitors and helping to reflect our shared hopes and values, we urge you to align the classification of museums in the state’s current tiered color-coded classification system with the restrictions placed on retail and indoor malls,” the mayors wrote.
But public health officials disagree. They believe the coronavirus risk level at museums is higher than shopping malls because they attract visitors from across the region and beyond, while shopping malls “are more community based.”
“Patrons spend longer periods of time in museums, on average, than in shopping malls, which affects the ability to limit duration of exposure,” acting state health officer Dr. Erica Pan responded in a letter.
DeWald countered Pan’s argument: Half of California’s museums, she said, are small with operating budgets of less than $500,000 and exist primarily to serve their local communities.
“We want to raise awareness that not all museums are major tourism destinations in urban environments,” DeWald told USA TODAY. “In a lot of cases, museums are doing really important work in smaller, rural or suburban communities, and even urban communities.”
The Catalina Island Museum in Avalon, California. (Photo: Catalina Island Museum)
Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of the Catalina Island Museum in Avalon, detailed the economic devastation to museums in an op-ed for CalMatters, a nonprofit news outlet that covers California policy and politics.
“I wanted to bring awareness that there are lots of museums of different sizes operating in many different parts of the state and we all have our different circumstances,” Lee told USA TODAY, adding that some museums don’t have huge budgets as some larger museums do.
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In July, a survey by the American Alliance of Museums showed a third of U.S. museum directors said there is a “significant risk” of permanently closing by next fall.
Lee said the Catalina Island Museum experienced a nearly $250,000 loss in revenue in September. She predicted that number will grow to $500,000 in just a couple of months.
“And it just seemed to me right from the get-go that this was a huge missed opportunity for the state to see museums as a partner and an ally in helping to get out the word as to why we need to stay safe and how we stay safe,” Lee said.
Lott, of the American Association of Museums, said it is important to allow museums to reopen to serve as gathering spaces for communities to heal from traumatic experiences, like the coronavirus pandemic and racial inequities that led to a summer of protests.
“Museums are vital to their communities, and they’ll be vital to the nation’s recovery,” Lott said, adding that museums can help “people understand [and] put into context what we’re dealing with now and inspire people to really think about a brighter future.”
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