A tense mood of anticipation filled the empty hallways of the Metropolitan Museum of Art today as custodians, gallery attendants, and ticket sellers counted down the minutes to reopening.
For months, Met staff have wondered how their institution would reopen safely during a pandemic that seems to surge in closed spaces. But administrators have spent months consulting with health officials to find a path toward reopening that would lessen the risk of exposure for employees and visitors.
And today, those safety measures were put to the test as audiences lined up for temperature readings and kept six feet apart.
The new rules were evident inside the Met, where staff have installed an elaborate routing system designed to shuffle visitors from room to room without much crossover. Entrance into the Egyptian Wing, for example, brings attendees on a counterclockwise tour of the galleries. This makes for a more linear experience than usual, when meandering through different sections was a possibility.
The pandemic measures also mean that more cramped spaces, like the iconic Temple of Dendur, are now off-limits to curious museum-goers.
But those restrictions didn’t seem to bother the dozens of museum members who poured into the galleries around noon (the Met opens to the general public on August 29).
Among the first through the doors was a 70-year-old woman named Judy, who made a beeline through the Greco-Roman art galleries.
“We can’t travel right now, but coming to the museum is like taking a trip,” she told Artnet News. “I’m on my way to see some African art because I’m hoping to travel to North Africa when the pandemic ends.”
As she disappeared into the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, another woman, an Upper East Side resident in her 50’s, appeared around the corner. She had just come from the ticket desk—now barricaded behind Plexiglas and sanitizing stations—where staff had applauded her as she expressed gratitude for the reopening while close to tears.
“I’m vibrating. I’m so excited,” she exclaimed. “It’s been a long five months.”
Despite the overwhelming joy that audiences are bringing back inside their favorite museums, many employees fear that reopening protocols may not go far enough. Staff spoke to Artnet News on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the pandemic rules.
“I feel a little uneasy, but so far the museum seems to be making the right choices,” said one Met employee in the membership and visitor experience department. “If this opening turns out to be a success, I hope the museum does not rush into moving forward with other stages.”
Museum employees who deal directly with the public are particularly on edge because of the heightened risk of contracting the virus. At the Whitney Museum of American Art, which also reopened to members today, some visitor-services employees expressed concern.
“I don’t think museums should be reopening,” said one frontline employee. “It makes me feel like the well-off people who never had their jobs threatened can relax and continue as though this was all a bad dream, when the pandemic is still very much happening.”
“I worry about the visitors coming in,” the worker added. “People have been aggressive to staff before, but I worry that now it could be even more dangerous.”
And some employees have been left in the dark about what museum protocol will be if coworkers and visitors start getting sick. A spokesperson for the Whitney did not respond when asked for details on their policies regarding another shutdown.
However, one employee told Artnet News that staff are required to self-monitor and quarantine if they suspect they have been in contact with someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus. Employees who become ill will also receive a special allotment of paid sick days for two weeks. That time could be extended, if needed.
Ken Weine, the head of external communication at the Met, declined to detail the museum’s contingency plans around visitors and employees who contract the coronavirus, beyond saying that regular health monitoring was in place.
“We have prepared, working with public health experts, for a variety of circumstances and have procedures if staff members or visitors present symptoms,” Weine said.
Museum officials have admitted that there are bound to be kinks as they enter uncharted territory. With celebrated new programs like a timed-ticketing system and a free bike valet service, the Met has forged ahead with initiatives meant to entice New Yorkers back into its halls.
Meanwhile, some staff are struggling to adapt to new working conditions. Artnet News observed at least three pairs of Met security guards walking through the galleries without masks over their mouths. And with visitors, staff seemed ambivalent to enforce social-distancing measures.
But that didn’t stop New Yorkers from calling each other out. On the rooftop near Héctor Zamora’s new installation, titled , two women got into a heated argument when one declined to photograph the other.
“I don’t touch other people’s cameras anymore,” said the would-be paparazza. “Take your own damn selfie.”