University Circle stays ahead of coronavirus reopening curve

Already a beacon in the fields of medicine, education, science, and the arts, the institutions of University Circle are now taking a leadership role in crowd control, modeling best practices for safe operation during a public health emergency.


Already a beacon in the fields of medicine, education, science, and the arts, the institutions of University Circle are now taking a leadership role in crowd control, modeling best practices for safe operation during a public health emergency.

Most have returned to welcoming visitors in person, all of them without negative consequences. Even as they now face a period of recovery from the financial impact of the shutdown, they’ve encountered little or no resistance to their safety measures and reported no cases of the virus in their employees, volunteers, or guests.

“We’ve done it with success,” said Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle, Inc. “We’ve prepared every detail for the best re-entry experience that can be achieved. We see ourselves as a place of hope.

A united Circle

If it’s true that nothing brings people together like a crisis, University Circle during the pandemic is the strongest proof. Viewing themselves as all in the same boat, the hospitals, schools, and cultural institutions in the neighborhood shared expertise and experience to help roust each other back to life after the shutdown.

There was no acting alone. All said they chose to re-open through discussions with peer organizations and designed safety protocols in collaboration with University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, and the Cleveland Clinic.

“We consulted with everybody and put together a playbook of our own,” said Kelly Falcone-Hall, chief executive of the Western Reserve Historical Society, which operates both the Cleveland History Center and Hale Farm & Village in Bath.

Facing forward at the History Center

Both venues re-opened with mask mandates in July, and so far, have seen steady but cautious increases. At the History Center, where certain galleries are closed, hours are limited to Fridays and Saturdays, and admissions are capped, attendance is at 20 percent of last year. At Hale Farm, by contrast, an open-air venue, traffic has been at near normal, at 70 percent.

The institution is also recovering financially. The loss of earned revenue during the shutdown obliged Falcone-Hall to trim $1.25 million from her budget and reduce her workforce from 150 at peak to 39, but the re-opening and robust retail sales and rentals are helping, she said, and she’s optimistic – like her peers – that the cooling weather and declines in COVID-19 cases in Ohio will encourage indoor traffic.

“It hurts, it’s unavoidable, but we planned for it,” Falcone-Hall said, noting that with the onset of fall, “I’m hoping people will shift their focus and come on inside.”

One of the first major institutions to re-open, here or anywhere, was the Cleveland Museum of Art. It cautiously resumed welcoming visitors June 30, weeks or months ahead of others.

Indeed, certain institutions, such as Severance Hall and remain closed to the public, unable to host guests in a safe manner, instead offering patrons a reduced, virtual fall season. The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland is set to re-open to the public Oct. 1, with masking, temperature scanning, and directional protocols.

Another early opener was the Cleveland Institute of Music. It launched a new year in person Aug. 10, after installing a temperature scanner, room capacity limits, and a variety of policies and technologies enabling students to make music indoors safely. So far, said a CIM spokeswoman, the semester has proceeded smoothly.

The art museum gets creative

At the art museum, the name of the game is masking, spacing, and reduced capacity. All but the tightest of galleries are open, said director William Griswold, but attendance is about one-quarter of usual, with the highest numbers on weekends. Most of the staff is still working from home. There are no live performances in Gartner Auditorium.

“People are understandably skittish about going out again, about re-entering the world,” Griswold said. “It’s a gradual process, and one that’s still underway.”

Included in that process is an ongoing loss of earned revenue from parking, memberships, event rentals, tickets, and food service. Between April and June, the museum estimates a loss of $5 million due to the pandemic. Travel restrictions also have complicated the borrowing of art, further hampering its ability to host ticketed exhibitions, and in March, before it secured a PPP loan, the museum instituted temporary furloughs and layoffs.

But there’s an upside, Griswold said. A “resilience” campaign to offset losses this and next year is going well, he said, and those who do visit the museum these days have more of the place to themselves.

“It’s a very intimate experience,” Griswold said. “People really seem to be enjoying it. There’s a lot that we’re able to carry on with during this period.”

Natural history museum evolves with the times

At the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, meanwhile, there’s little they’re not able to carry on with. By adopting elaborate safety measures and taking advantage of its outdoor properties, the museum has been back in operation well over two months.

The biggest hiccup so far, aside from one or two guests who’ve contested the museum’s mask requirement? Extending an exhibition that couldn’t be taken down or shipped away during shutdown.

“We’re charging full steam ahead,” said Harvey Webster, the museum’s ambassador and chief wildlife officer. “The work of the museum goes on.”

It’s not business as usual, however. Operations at the museum today are quite different from those of a year ago, and while the institution as a whole is sound, the financial situation is less than ideal.

Today, for instance, the museum is closed Monday and Tuesday, and no more than 200 are allowed into the museum at one time. The planetarium is capped at 20. In true scientific fashion, the museum today also takes the temperature of every incoming guest and employs no-contact ticketing, digital visitor guides, and timed admissions. Notably, the museum also requires one-directional movement through the galleries, in an effort to avoid pinch points.

“Part of it is, you throw a lot out there and see what sticks,” Webster said.

Traffic is well short of normal. Even with some weekend days selling out, overall admissions during summer were still somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of average, Webster said. In June, to offset an estimated $1.5 million loss from the shutdown, the museum laid off 26.  

But it’s an evolving, and improving, process. Reduced as it is, traffic at CMNH is already on the rise. Webster said he expects pent-up demand to fuel continued increases and financial gains as the virus situation improves, the weather turns cooler, and the museum is able to loosen restrictions. He’s also hopeful that a live animal exhibition from Canada will lure visitors back to the museum later this fall.

Ongoing challenges and frustrations aside, the reopening of University Circle is a story of success, Ronayne said. Each institution is making smart choices, but what’s helping the neighborhood most, he said, is the spirit of collaboration, the willingness by all stakeholders to do their parts.

“I think people respect the partnership here,” Ronayne said. “By and large, we’ve seen an incredible constituency of visitors, workers, students, and residents. We’ve seen nothing but support for one another.”

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