St. Louis attractions that usually count on scores of visitors found themselves in a tricky situation with the coronavirus pandemic. How do you keep a cultural institution going when its visitor traffic suddenly evaporates? And how do you ensure the safety of staff and guests when it’s time to reopen? T&S talked with executives from three area venues to find out how they’re coping with COVID-19 now that visitors have returned.
the magic house, st. louis children’s museum
Chief administrative officer Carrie Hutchcraft says Magic House staffers have spent a great deal of time modifying the museum’s features and interiors so guests can have fun safely. “We removed some things entirely, like the First Impressions exhibit where kids could make impressions of their faces and hands,” she says. “Now isn’t the time for high-touch features like that.” Other exhibits have been moved or expanded so people can stay apart, and many families are continuing to enjoy the museum’s online programming as well, Hutchcraft says.
During in-person visits, guests sit at socially distanced tables in spaces like the art studio, and children age 9 and up must wear face masks indoors. Kids can request personal supply bags with items like crayons and glue, and hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are available throughout the facility. Hutchcraft says it’s gratifying to see everyone cooperating with guidelines for the benefit of others.
“Visitors make their reservations online, and there are staggered entry times to minimize contact,” she says. “We have to stay below 25% of normal capacity right now, so families actually can enjoy a near-private play experience. Visitors are returning with a feeling of excitement about the new state of normalcy, and it’s wonderful to have them in the building again. The Magic House has been teaching kids about good health and hygiene for years, and it’s more important than ever now.” Visit magichouse.org.
saint louis zoo
According to director Michael Macek, the zoo’s furred and feathered residents are as happy to see visitors as visitors are to see them. “It’s always been our mission to educate people and connect them with animals, and we are glad to be able to do that again,” he says. “We have been working closely with government and health officials and consulting other zoos and aquariums about best practices for reopening. Our zoo also has an epidemiologist and other professionals on staff to ensure things go smoothly.”
Macek says capacity restrictions are in place, and admission is still free, but tickets must be ordered online in advance. He adds that because popular annual events like Jungle Boogie aren’t possible right now, the park is holding a special Night at the Zoo program Aug. 27 and Sept. 17. The limited-attendance, socially distanced party for adults includes drinks, food and gift discounts, animal-themed masks, special exhibits and more.
Many other precautions are in place as well, Macek says. “We have additional staff walking the grounds to help visitors follow safety guidelines,” he says. “Like everyone else, we have experienced a learning curve in this new environment, but so far guests are cooperating, and that’s gratifying to see. People think of the zoo as a good place to ‘test the waters’ as they return to the outside world, and they really want to reconnect with the animals.” Visit stlzoo.org.
contemporary art museum st. louis
Executive director Lisa Melandri says she and her staff are excited to have visitors back at the museum, and they are committed to helping people enjoy it safely. “We are accepting online reservations and walk-ins,” she says. “We want to accommodate as many people as is practical in the current environment.” And for those who don’t yet feel comfortable visiting in person, the museum has developed a schedule of virtual programs.
Groups of up to six can enter the museum together, and social distancing is required. “We have masks available if needed, and face shields if people prefer,” Melandri says. “We are cleaning the premises every two hours, wiping touch surfaces and offering hand sanitizer.” Kickplates have been installed on bathroom doors to make them touchless, plexiglass shields protect staff and visitors at the front desk, and traffic patterns are clearly marked.
Melandri says the online ticketing system has produced added benefits. “It gives us the chance to invite people to join our mailing list,” she notes. “Collecting their information allows us a clearer sense of who is visiting so we can communicate better in the future. One of the most exciting things we’ve learned this year is that the museum is attracting many more first-time guests than expected. It’s a rare example of good news in a difficult situation. Offering more people access to the arts is the reason we are here.” Visit camstl.org.
Photo courtesy of The Magic House
Photo: Robin Winkelman, Saint Louis Zoo
Photo: Chris Bauer