Cautious Steps to Re-Opening the Arts with Advice From Yale School of Public Health

How do you practice social distancing in a dance studio? Look at the way birds fly, always in tandem, but never colliding. 

It’s one of many suggestions that Dr. Sten Vermund of the Yale School of Public Health has been giving to theaters, museums and other arts venues that want to find a balance between keeping visitors safe and getting back to business. 

The Yale School of Public Health partnered with Shoreline Arts Alliance in March 2020 to advise businesses on the best ways to navigate the myriad and ever-changing public health regulations over the course of the pandemic. The group has hosted twelve webinars on public health practices that have been viewed by thousands of people in the U.S. and abroad. 

Reopening arts venues has taken on even more relevance recently with the relaxation of certain guidelines. Last Wednesday, Gov. Ned Lamont repealed social distancing and mask mandates, apart from non-vaccinated individuals indoors. Centers for Disease Control has also recommended that vaccinated individuals could go without masks indoors. 

But museums and theaters remain cautious about returning too quickly to the days of a full house on opening night, according to Eric Dillner, chief executive director of the Shoreline Arts Alliance. 

“We don’t want to have anything to spread in any of these facilities. My mantra is ‘Let’s open right the first time,’” said Dillner.

Susan Tamulevich, executive director of the Custom House Maritime Museum in New London, said that she has been watching the webinars all year. She said it helped her keep abreast of all the changing guidance.

“It’s all been tremendously helpful in a time when you feel kind of helpless,” she said. 

Vermund visited the museum two weeks ago in anticipation of its full re-opening for Memorial Day Weekend. Tamulevich said the visit felt like a kind of “seal of approval” that she hopes will assure patrons that they are doing everything possible to keep them safe. 

During visits, Vermund asks venue directors to walk him through as if he were a patron and makes suggestions about things like air quality, how to control traffic patterns and cleaning policies. He said there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. 

“We’ve been to museums that are essentially historic homes and have no HVAC at all,” he said. “We’ve been to large theaters, small theaters, performing arts and ballet studios. Every one of those has nuances.”

Moving the air 

Vermund has faced plenty of challenges — from figuring out how to sanitize railings made of rope to minimizing particle spread in the woodwind section of an orchestra (plexiglass shields can help) — but every venue shares a common need: air filtration — one of the most effective ways of preventing spread of viral infections like COVID-19. 

Krystal Pollitt, a professor of epidemiology and chemical and environmental engineering at the Yale School of Public Health, explained that air filters are able to capture particles containing the virus that would otherwise remain airborne for anywhere from minutes to hours, potentially infecting people nearby. 

She recommends that venues fit their HVAC systems with a MERV-13 filter, which has a tight weave and is able to catch the virus more effectively.

But even venues with HVAC systems that can accommodate the higher-grade filters without major renovations will face an increase in energy costs, given the greater force required to push air through the filters. 

Vermund noted the irony of asking people to reduce the efficiency of their air filtering systems in light of his focus on climate change and global warming. 

“I really don’t have a choice,” he said. “I welcome the day where we can relax some of the rigor of the air quality and if everyone would agree to be vaccinated we’d get there.” 

Pollitt said she stops short of recommending thatvvenues upgrade their HVAC systems immediately. 

“Whenever you start talking about retrofits to HVAC systems … [people] start to panic, thinking about what the costs mean,” she said. 

“The arts organizations are not rolling in dough in the best of times,” admitted Vermund.

Vermund and Pollitt have been working on creating more affordable options — for example, taking a MERV-13 filter and attaching it with duct tape to a box fan, which Pollitt says can move around a “significant” amount of air. 

Tamulevich said they would be building two such fans before the museum fully reopens. She said it cost less than $125 and the additional energy costs would be negligible.   

Donna Lynn Hilton, the artistic director at Goodspeed Opera House, also had a visit from Dr. Vermund just over a week ago. She said that after the visit, they installed MERV-13 filters into their HVAC system. 

While she’s aware that changes will cost more money, she considers them necessary.

“We have to do what we have to do to make sure people are safe, it’s just a reality,” said Hilton. She added that performing arts venues “cannot afford to get this wrong.” 

As safe as possible 

Another question facing venues is whether they can — or should — continue with some of the safety protocols, such as social distancing and masking, now that much of the public has been vaccinated. 

Vermund said he didn’t see any problem asking people to keep masking, despite recent guidelines. 

“By no means do we have anything close to herd immunity,” he said, adding that it’s impossible to know who is or isn’t vaccinated.

Tamulevich said her organization was still asking patrons to wear masks, and that all their docents were vaccinated. But she said the Custom House Maritime Museum typically doesn’t have large numbers of people in their space. 

“We are the perfect COVID museum, because we never get large crowds,” she said. 

Although Goodspeed does not plan to operate indoors until the fall, Hilton said she was encouraged that their plan appeared to be in good shape.

“I think the thing that surprised me was how optimistic Dr. Vermund was,” she said. “It was reassuring to hear the amount of faith he had in the vaccines.” 

For now, she said, Goospeed will continue to be cautious. The theater plans to begin outdoor performances the week of June 10, and performers will be tested once each week, but Hilton said she was still not sure whether the theater will require masks.

“We want to be as safe as we possibly can be,” she said.

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