How does the Please Touch Museum reopen during a pandemic?

How does a space focused on hands-on play get back in the game? New CDC guidance based on Penn Med research informed the choice.

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The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia is reopening to the public on April 22, 2021. The museum had been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March of 2020. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia is reopening to the public on April 22, 2021. The museum had been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March of 2020. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Like many Philadelphia museums that will be reopening, safety restrictions in place, for the first time since the pandemic began, the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park is ready for play again.

Every exhibit there revolves around a theme — learning through touch. Which presents the museum with a unique challenge: How can it safely reopen while still providing an immersive, hands-on learning experience for kids?

The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia is reopening to the public on April 22, 2021. The museum had been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The irony of the situation is not lost on Please Touch’s chief operating officer, Donna Saul Millen.

“Being ‘Please Touch Museum’ in the middle of a pandemic, it certainly raises eyebrows,” she said. “It raises questions.”

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The city announced earlier this month that museums could reopen with limited capacity and mask mandates.

Please Touch will be open four days a week for two daily sessions, one from 9 a.m. to noon and the other from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Each will be capped at about 600 guests, with time in between for the exhibits to be cleaned. The museum usually hosts about 500,000 visitors annually, but this year it expects to welcome fewer patrons.

Inside historic Memorial Hall, social distancing circles spot the floor six feet apart; hand-sanitizing stations are distributed throughout every exhibit; and gone are the museum’s signature re-wearable props and costumes.

Markers on the floor of the Please Touch Museum direct kids where to play around their river exhibit. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The museum’s planning (beginning last May) was delicate, putting COVID-19 precautions in place to keep guests safe without ruining the fun for the kids. The renovations, including additional sanitization and improved air filtration systems, cost the museum close to $100,000.

The signature 100-year-old Woodside Park Dentzel Carousel required special attention, given how closely together riders are grouped on it. Animals on the carousel that are less than 6 feet apart are wrapped in red ribbon, signaling to the adults not to put their kids on them while preserving for the little ones the mystique that the animal is sleeping.

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The carousel at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Social distancing on the carousel was something we took into consideration right away,” Saul Millen said, “while at the same time, keeping the carousel as vibrant as possible. We don’t want to wipe off the paint or destroy the look of it.”

The museum decided how to reopen safely by prepping surfaces according to new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If it’s being touched, is it a surface that is holding the virus?” Saul Millen said about the museum’s interactive exhibits. “We’ve learned over these few months and over this past year that is not necessarily the case.”

The CDC cited a study published earlier this month that concluded the coronavirus is largely not transmissible on surfaces. In short, the study determined that a water droplet loses too many infected cells to transmit the virus once it touches a surface.

Dr. Aaron Richterman, an epidemiology fellow at Penn Medicine, co-authored the paper cited by the CDC.

“The importance of surface transmission, or fomite transmission, is pretty much negligible,” Richterman said. “The virus, SARS-CoV-2, is transmitted through the respiratory route. Someone either breathes, or coughs, or sneezes the virus into the air, and someone else inhales it.”

Richterman said that limited attendance and spaced-out reservation times will help slow the spread of the virus, but that the ideal situation to minimize transmission would involve an emphasis on outdoor exhibits’ ventilation over sanitizing surfaces.

Donna Saul Millen, Chief Operating Officer of the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, explains how kids can craft safely at the Makerspace Studio with COIVD-19 safety protocols in place. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

For now, the museum’s exhibits are largely indoors in close quarters, so the staff will be tasked with maintaining 6 feet of distance between museum guests. Saul Millen said nobody during the soft openings this month opposed the mask mandate inside.

Without guests last year, the museum lost about $6 million in income. But now, Please Touch Museum is operating in the black thanks to federal stimulus money, laying off 75% of museum staff, salary cuts, and community contributions, CEO Patricia Wellenbach said earlier this month. Wellenbach added that the museum has not touched its endowment throughout the pandemic.

The museum opens to the public on Thursday, April 22. Tickets must be purchased online in advance on the website.

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