Trying to avoid another surge in the COVID-19 pandemic, California has shut down many indoor businesses and activities until the infection rates in their counties have dropped to more manageable levels. The toughest restrictions remain in place in the dozen counties with the highest rates of positive tests and new cases, including Los Angeles County. It’s a cautious approach rooted in science, which is reassuring and welcome. But it shouldn’t preclude innovative ways to adapt spaces and our use of them to keep people safe.
Here’s one example. Even in counties with widespread transmission, the state has allowed indoor venues such as shopping malls, retail stores, hair salons and tattoo parlors to reopen with restrictions. Museums, however, have been told to keep their indoor galleries closed, even though they have offered to put in place an elaborate array of safety measures. If these facilities can reopen as safely as shopping malls or tattoo parlors, state health officials should find a way to let them do so.
In the state’s assessment, shopping malls generally attract patrons from the local community while museums attract visitors from across the region and beyond. That “raises the risk of COVID-19 transmission due to the amount of mixing of people from different households and communities,” acting state health officer Dr. Erica Pan wrote in a letter to the California Assn. of Museums. She also wrote that visitors spend longer periods of time in museums than they do in shopping malls.
And, she says, mall visitors spend their time in a different way than they do in museums. “There are not things on the wall to stop and talk about,” Pan said in a phone interview. The idea behind the state restrictions is to eliminate places to congregate, which is sensible. When people go into a shopping mall, Pan said, they really should focus on getting what they need and getting out.
They probably should in the age of COVID. But there’s no way to know that shoppers won’t pause to appraise an item of clothing for any less time than museum visitors will pause to appraise a painting. According to a 2017 study on how long visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago viewed artworks, the median time was a scant 28.6 seconds.
Part of the problem here is that state health officials seem stuck on the conventional notion of a museum full of art lovers who roam pensively from room to room, sitting for long stretches to stare at a Rembrandt or a Rothko. That’s not what would happen under the COVID-era restrictions that museums have agreed on and urged the state to accept, including staggering their admissions, limiting themselves to 25% capacity and keeping people flowing through their spaces in a timely and ordered fashion.
If the L.A. County Museum of Art reopened at 25% capacity, “you