By Jonathan McFadden
Even as restrictions ease and businesses reopen, visitors to Charlotte-Mecklenburg cultural organizations shouldn’t expect masks, social distancing and other pandemic-borne safety measures to completely disappear.
Leaders at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, Theatre Charlotte and Discovery Place are still evaluating what the post-pandemic experience will look like as they welcome the public back into their shows, exhibits and galleries.
“Our plan is to open the doors and have people come in, but we’re also prepared to adjust to whatever the climate is,” said David Taylor, president and CEO of the Gantt Center. “If we get guidance that we should retreat backwards, we know how to do that and can do that very quickly.”
“We’re paying close attention to the information coming out from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and at the state level,” added Heather Norton, vice president of science and nature at Discovery Place. “We want to make sure we’re making informed decisions that look out for our community and staff. We don’t have plans to do anything hastily.”
That hasn’t diminished anticipation.
“The community is certainly hungry” for more productions, plays and performances, said Chris Timmons, Theatre Charlotte’s acting executive director. After holding shows outside and offering them virtually, “we’re seeing different audiences experiencing our shows and our productions, which hopefully will carry over beyond this.”
But as more people get vaccinated, officials still face a daunting task: How do you return to some semblance of pre-pandemic, maskless “normalcy” while ensuring visitors still feel safe and protected? And how do you balance those considerations with the honor system health officials have asked Americans to abide by, whether they’re vaccinated or not?
“You still have people who may not be comfortable being around other people,” Timmons said. “You’ve got people who may have chosen not to be vaccinated in an environment with people who are — and you’ve got mask mandates lifted. Do you require people to prove they’ve been vaccinated? How do you walk that line?”
‘A measured approach’
For Taylor and his staff at the Gantt Center, which reopened its doors last October, “follow the science” has been a mantra that’s guided every do and don’t. At some point, he expects that will include allowing vaccinated employees and guests to maneuver in the museum without masks.
“If (employees) haven’t been vaccinated, we’re going to ask that (they) wear masks for the foreseeable future,” he said. “We’re asking the same of our patrons. We’re not going to require proof of vaccination at this point in time — it’s a bit of an honor system.”
But for now, social distancing, a mask mandate and occupancy limits in galleries and exhibits remain in place. And it’s unlikely the institution’s rigorous cleaning regimen will ever slacken.
“Our cleaning sensitivity will still be high,” Taylor said. “We’ll have masks available for everybody. We think as people come in, they’ll still feel very safe.”
Discovery Place has adopted a similar philosophy. Like the Gantt Center, the science museum took many of its exhibits and programming online ahead of reopening to the public last September. Norton said the museum continues to follow guidance from federal and state officials and will resume field trips, longer hours, birthday parties and more when it’s safe to do so. It closely monitors guest traffic in the museum and maintains capacity limits and social distancing in various spaces.
That hasn’t stopped the museum from amplifying its offerings to the community or running its beloved summer camp, which it managed to operate safely last year while serving 45 percent of its summer camp audience when compared to 2019, a Discovery Place spokesperson said. So far this year, that number’s climbed to 78 percent.
The uptick doesn’t surprise Norton, who says people in the community often ask about the return of popular attractions like the IMAX theater.
“There’s a real appetite and that appetite has only grown as the pandemic has waned,” she said.
Visitors to the museum still must wear facial coverings. The janitorial staff continues to follow a rigorous cleaning schedule that, among other things, ensures high-touch surfaces are frequently sanitized.
“We certainly want to welcome back our guests and visitors as we did pre-pandemic, but it’s going to be a measured approach,” Norton said.
Bracing for the ‘new dynamic’
Things look a bit different for Theatre Charlotte. Last December, a fire ravaged its historic building on Queens Road. Timmons doesn’t expect a new one to open until the fall 2022 production season, which gives him and his staff ample time to determine what it’ll look like to bring audience members back into a building.
“Early on, the discussions were, ‘Are we going to be able to force people to wear a mask when they come to watch a show?’ We talked about temperature checks and how awkward that was,” Timmons said. “Well, that became second nature to us. Now, the dynamic is changing.”
Today, that dynamic looks like shows and rehearsals outside and other pandemic-inspired changes, several of which Timmons expects will become permanent.
“We’re not printing playbills. The minute you buy tickets, it’s digital,” he said. “We’re not putting microphones on people.”
They are putting a lot of thought into seating and sound. As the community theater lets larger crowds attend its shows (currently, audiences are capped at 75), Timmons and his staff will need to ensure everyone can hear what’s happening onstage.
“If you’re out in a field and trying to socially distance 100 people…that space becomes much bigger,” he said.
Still, the outside experience may inspire a new way to host community theater. People come to shows with their own chairs. Families and friends often buy group tickets together and sit away from strangers. Patrons have even begun bringing their own food and wine.
“It’s a bit of a different experience, but I think, for a lot of people, they’re finding something (new),” Timmons said. “If we can offer things like that moving forward, I think they’ll really appreciate it.”