In summary

As some museums begin to reopen, museums in 25 counties continue to be closed, revealing inconsistencies in California’s response to COVID-19.

By Julie Perlin Lee, Special to CalMatters

Julie Perlin Lee is executive director of Catalina Island Museum, info@catalinamuseum.org.

You will be able to visit a museum in San Francisco or San Diego soon, but do not expect to do so in Los Angeles, Monterey, Sacramento or Santa Barbara. 

As museums in some areas begin to safely reopen to the public, museums in 25 California counties continue to be closed even though retailers and shopping malls are open.

Although the priority must be protecting the public during this public health crisis, there are significant inconsistencies in the state of California’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic that are negatively affecting the museum sector – including my museum, the Catalina Island Museum

Museums that reopened briefly in June, including mine, fully complied with state guidance, which includes requiring visitors to wear masks and enforcing social distancing. Museums also took additional steps to protect the safety and health of visitors, such as: creating a one-way path through museum galleries; limiting capacity; implementing online timed ticketing reservations; creating members only hours, removing touchable exhibit interactives; and closing areas of the museum that do not allow for social distancing. 

The Catalina Island Museum even increased the frequency of air filter replacement, improved ventilation by opening doors and ceased volunteer service. Our staff produced a public service announcement on the importance of washing hands to the chorus of the famous Santa Catalina song “26 Miles” and continued to encourage public health measures. 

Even though we adopted a plan for 25% of normal capacity in our 18,000-square-foot museum, it was never needed as the highest average number of visitors per hour between June 12 and July 1 was 12, with no more than 85 people throughout a 7-hour period.

Despite our own financial losses of $250,000, we raised enough money in a day-of-giving to offer three months of free admission for our community which is in need of psychological relief as unemployment in Avalon has reached as high as 90%. Our visitors mainly come from Southern California and travel, stay, shop and participate in activities together. 

Our reopening strategy was halted on July 1 when the governor started reclosing museums and other sectors. The root of the problem is that the four-tier framework released in late August continues to place California museums in the same risk category as movie theaters and indoor dining. It is inconsistent and confusing to allow sectors with similar risk profiles, such as shopping malls and retail, to welcome customers while museums remain closed to the public. 

Museums are found in rural, urban and suburban areas and come in many sizes. Although there are many world-renowned museums in our great state, half of museums have annual operating budgets less than $500,000 and are primarily focused on serving their local community. 

The global pandemic is having a devastating economic impact on the museum sector. The American Alliance of Museums issued results from a survey in July that warned that one out of every three museums may shutter forever as funding sources and financial reserves run dry. The California Association of Museums estimates that museums have lost nearly $4 billion since mid-March. 

Continued shutdown jeopardizes further job loss for our organization and decreases our ability to make positive economic and social impact in our community. It is critical that state and county agencies understand the lengths to which museums strive to keep our communities safe and healthy, and to view us as strategic partners that are here to help.

Museum advocates have been urging the administration to reassess the treatment of museum indoor operations in the Blueprint for a Safer Economy. Until then, many California museums are unable to fully serve their communities and provide the mental, cultural and economic benefits that are sorely needed.  

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