Eastern State Penitentiary reopens following monthslong closure

Eastern State Penitentiary and other cultural institutions were forced to close under a citywide mandate amid Philly’s rising COVID-19 cases.

Visitors in the Eastern State Penitentiary courtyard wearing face masks.

Visitors in the Eastern State Penitentiary courtyard wearing face masks. (Eastern State Penitentiary)

After a four-month hiatus, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is now open to the public.

The Fairmount penitentiary was forced to close under a citywide mandate in November 2020 amid the city’s rising coronavirus cases.

“America’s most historic prison” will be open for tours with new operating hours Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Eastern State President and CEO Sally Elk said in a press release that the organization is thrilled to welcome visitors and members back to the site.

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“We hope that Eastern State’s engaging programming and awe-inspiring architecture will provide the much-needed space to escape,” Elk said, “and also to reflect on important issues.”

In addition to inviting the public back into the building, the penitentiary will be opening up spaces that haven’t been seen in a full year.

Among the spaces reopening is the penitentiary synagogue, just a few weeks ahead of Passover.

“We believe it’s the first synagogue built in an American prison,” said Senior Vice President Sean Kelley. “And many of our visitors — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — find it a deeply moving space.”

Other spaces accessible to the public include Cellblock 11, which houses several site-specific artist installations.

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COVID-19 safety measures remain in effect at the penitentiary. Staff and visitors ages two and up must wear face masks, and visitors must stay six feet apart at all times. The site will continue to operate at reduced capacity.

Other cultural institutions, including the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Barnes Foundation, The Franklin Institute, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, opted for earlier reopenings in January,

The Rodin Museum will remain closed through spring, with a yet-to-be-announced reopening date.

Philadelphia remains at high risk of community transmission, according to the Philadelphia Health Department. As of Tuesday, Philadelphia has recorded 115,997 cases of COVID-19, including 3,169 fatalities.

At the same time, Philly’s weekly vaccinations have nearly doubled with the addition of the new FEMA-run vaccination site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Five more community-based sites are slated to open in the coming weeks.

Those interested in visiting the penitentiary must purchase timed tickets online in advance.

WHYY’s Jad Sleiman contributed reporting.

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