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Smithsonian museums, National Zoo eye reopening before summer

Smithsonian museums, National Zoo eye reopening before summer
© Greg Nash

Some of the nation capital’s biggest tourist attractions, and favorites of local residents, may be reopening in the coming weeks as governments in the Washington region start lifting their coronavirus restrictions.

Top officials at the Smithsonian Institution, which consists of 19 museums and the National Zoo, say that while they’re still not certain when they will reopen, they’re aiming for late May or early June.

But even then, it would be at reduced capacity and with other restrictions like mask requirements. 

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“We anticipate that we will reopen in phases, but at a faster pace than our staggered reopening last year,” said Smithsonian spokesperson Alise Fisher.

The Smithsonian is working with representatives in the Biden Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a plan to reopen safely.

“We certainly don’t want to close again. That’s worse than not opening in some cases,” said Doug Hall, COVID-19 response coordinator for the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian initially closed the doors to its free museums on March 14, 2020, based on guidance from health officials. The National Zoo and National Air and Space Museum were the first to welcome visitors back on July 24, with extra precautions during a phased reopening as COVID-19 cases declined.

“The numbers went down pretty well in July and we had half of the institution open, and we had done so very safely,” Hall said, adding they had “no knowledge of any transmission from the public to our staff or public to public during that time.”

But increased infection rates across the country prompted the Smithsonian to close again on Nov. 23.

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They’ve remained closed ever since, spilling over into spring, the start of the busiest tourist season in Washington, D.C.

Hall said that during a normal spring, visitors would wait in lines that wrapped around the Smithsonian buildings. The large crowds usually arrived around the start of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in April and would last until at least the Fourth of July, Hall said.

“It’s different now, but we are looking forward to seeing some more people,” said Hall.

DC Mayor Muriel BowserMuriel BowserDC mayor defends restricting dancing at weddings amid pushback DC mayor admitted to Democratic governors group amid statehood fight The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - House GOP drama intensifies; BIden sets new vax goal MORE (D) recently announced that many coronavirus restrictions will be scaled back starting May 1. The new rules will allow museums to operate at 50 percent capacity.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Smithsonian will be reopening its doors at the beginning of next month, even at outdoor venues like the zoo.

“We look at all the updates to the guidelines that our local jurisdictions are making, not just D.C., but Maryland and Virginia as well,” said Fisher. 

Private museums like the Spy Museum and the Museum of the Bible are now welcoming visitors, and Hall said the Smithsonian’s COVID-19 response team has been in close contact with them to see what parts of the reopening process have worked well.

“They have different considerations on the financial side that they have to take into account that drive their ability to stay open in the future and survive,” Hall said.

The Smithsonian is largely funded by the federal government, supplemented by private donations and other investments.

Fisher said that they are taking a “slow and cautious” reopening approach even with the zoo that is made up of mostly outdoor exhibits.

“The zoo does have public facing staff like all other Smithsonian museums,” said Fisher. “Those closures have really been for their protections as well as of course for our visitors and the animals that are in the zoo’s care.”

Still, the Smithsonian closures can be frustrating for DC residents, particularly as other museums are open and as public health officials highlight lower risks of infection while being outside in settings not unlike the National Zoo.

Chaia Odoms Morgan, who is working from home and trying to find ways to entertain a five-year-old and a newborn, said parenting over the past year has been a “challenge because we didn’t have the normal supports in place like birthday parties and visits to the Smithsonian.”

“We are excited to have those places to go to sort of relieve the pressure of being home all the time,” she said.

Courtney Whittington, founder of the website DC Area Mom Collective who has four young children, said taking her kids outside has been “essential” for everyone’s mental health during the pandemic.

Whittington said the zoo will be one of their first destinations when the Smithsonian opens again because the outdoor exhibits provide extra comfort. 

“I remember fondly being able to go to the zoo with the timed-entry tickets,” Whittington said. “I really miss the zoo. I feel like it’s one of those foundations or corner stones for children in the DC area.”