Eastern State Penitentiary to reopen in mid-August after months-long closure

Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary suffered from years of deterioration between the time it closed as a prison in 1971 and when it opened for tours in 1994. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary — which closed on March 14 due to the coronavirus pandemic — is set to reopen its doors to the public on Aug. 14.

The mid-August reopening will follow a member preview on Aug. 7.

In June, the historic site announced layoffs affecting about 40% of its staff, which it attributed to the ongoing pandemic.

The penitentiary’s popular Halloween fundraiser “Terror Behind the Walls” — once deemed America’s No. 1 haunted house — was also suspended for 2020.

Over the last two decades, the penitentiary has become a nationally-recognized museum whose mission remains especially relevant: examining the legacy and failures of the American criminal justice system.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site President and CEO Sally Elk said that the organization can’t wait to welcome visitors back to the penitentiary.

“Nothing compares to seeing the massive stone building and exploring the imposing cellblocks in person,” Elk said, adding that the health and safety of staff and visitors remains the site’s top priority.

The penitentiary has implemented several measures to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19, including modified tour routes, reduced capacity, physical distancing and enhanced cleaning protocols.

Staff and visitors ages 2 and up will be required to wear face masks. Visitors must follow social distancing guidelines, and will be asked to sanitize their hands upon entry.

Eastern State Penitentiary
Eastern State Penitentiary deteriorated between the time it closed as a prison in 1971 and when it opened for tours in 1994. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The site also aims to minimize person-to-person interaction. ESPHS has installed plexiglass shields throughout the property, and cash will not be accepted.

For now, group tours, guide-led tours and in-person events are still off the table.

During its first phase of reopening, the site will be open Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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

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