Centers in Southwest Virginia take various approaches to reopening to the public

Centers in Southwest Virginia take various approaches to reopening to the public

From the Martinsville-region COVID-19/coronavirus daily update from state, nation and world: June 29 series

How and when to reopen to the public isn't a one-size-fits-all process for those facilities that provide entertainment, education and convening activities.

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Who’s open? Who’s not? Who’s somewhere between? Many are asking those questions about businesses, learning centers, event centers and nonprofit organizations in the Martinsville and the surrounding area.

Slowly but surely, businesses and facilities in Southwest Virginia are opening their doors and inviting people inside, but others are waiting a little longer to roll out their red carpets.

It was clear back in March and April when the pandemic and stay-at-home orders made closing imperative, but how do places such as the Virginia Museum of Natural History or the Reynolds Homestead or the Spencer-Penn Centre — usually teeming with people and activities about now — fit into the different phases of Gov. Ralph Northam’s reopening plan, which begins Phase III on Wednesday.

At the Spencer-Penn Centre in Spencer, Susan Sabin, executive director, expressed a hybrid existence. Her nonprofit facility isn’t open in the same way that it was before COVID-19, but it never completely closed, either.

“While our staff continued to work, allowing guests into the Centre and encouraging them to host parties didn’t seem wise,” Sabin said. “Our priority is and will always be making sure that the Centre is a safe place for anyone who walks through the doors, and that meant limiting who entered the building, including staff and volunteers.”

The facility recently opened for appointments during the week and started to host small events, but other pieces of the operation remain paused.

“Spencer-Penn is one of the unique cases where almost everything we do falls into a different phase, which makes it hard to completely reopen at one time,” Sabin said. “However, opening the Centre back up in phases also allows us to work out any kinks in our plans and adjust to ensure we are doing what is best for all involved.”

She said that she and her team are looking into virtual opportunities, along with moving some things outdoors, but stressed the importance of waiting until the pandemic wanes before planning any major in-person events.

For those who are using the space, though, there are safety precautions in place.

“We are currently requiring guests to wear masks and social distance,” Sabin said. “Once classes return, we will be limiting class sizes a little more strictly and looking at spreading classes out into larger spaces for social distancing, especially if they can’t occur outside.”

She said she anticipates a day when the center does fully reopen.

“Honestly, my biggest hope is that once we are able to be completely open, that we can recover quickly and be stronger than we were before,” Sabin said. “I want to see little feet roaming the halls, hear friends laughing as they catch up with one another, share lunch at a picnic table – all the things we have missed over the last few months.”

Natural history museum

Just up the road, the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville reopened its large dinosaur cast skeletons, live reptile exhibit and vast taxidermy collection to the public on June 19.

“The decision to close to visitors was not a fun decision to make, but it was an easy one,” said Zach Ryder, marketing and public relations manager. “The museum will always prioritize the health and safety of our visitors.”

As the number of cases across the state started to decline, the museum opted to open on a limited weekend basis, with hours on Fridays and Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays, from 1 to 5 p.m. VMNH officials said they plan to monitor the situation continuously and will consider adding additional days of operation in the coming weeks.

On the day the facility reopened, they did so with free admission. Even with the extra incentive, the crowd size remained moderate.

“Visitation on Friday was modest and less than a typical Friday. We cannot say for certain that people being cautious about getting out and about was the reason, but it seems likely that it played a role,” Ryder said. “The vast majority of visitors from Friday through Sunday actually came from outside of the local area. We had visitors from out of state, such as North Carolina and Tennessee, and from nearby areas, such as Roanoke.”

Unlike previous years, the museum will not host popular events that historically drew large crowds.

“Due to COVID-19, the museum’s Dino Festival that was originally scheduled for July and all of our summer adventure camps have been canceled,” Ryder said. “We will continue to monitor the situation and make decisions on future programs and events accordingly. The museum will also continue to adhere to all crowd size restrictions and guidelines set forth by Gov. [Ralph] Northam.”

With families entering the museum once again, precautions are in place and available on the VMNH’s website.

Those include visitors 10 and older wearing a face covering unless a health condition prevents that action, practicing proper social distancing both inside and outside of the facility and following signs created to help visitors navigate the galleries.

Additionally, some exhibit galleries and public areas will not be accessible. Notably, the museum’s Hooker Furniture Discovery Reef, the PALEO Café and some interactive exhibit elements will not be accessible.

Because of crowd size limitations, the museum may have to delay or deny entry to visitors. At this time, the museum is not taking visitation reservations, but Ryder noted that is something being considering.

“The museum is taking the health concerns related to COVID-19 very seriously,” Ryder said. “Not only has the museum taken precautions to help safeguard against the spread of COVID-19, but the size of the facility and the openness of many of the exhibit galleries allows for easier social distancing than many indoor visitor destinations.”

Reynolds Homestead

Another local facility is waiting a little longer before opening its doors to the public. The Reynolds Homestead in Critz hasn’t set a specific date, but Director Julie Walters Steele said all plans currently point to mid-August.

“We work with all ages, including some of our more vulnerable populations,” Walters Steele said. “Until we have a better understanding of the virus, our focus is on keeping our staff and guests safe.”

When the facility reopens, she said, safety will be at the forefront. Guests will be asked to wear their own personal face coverings or don a mask available at the facility and use proper social distancing. The Reynolds Homestead will also provide gloves and hand sanitizer for guests and has a plan to do regular deep cleanings of the heavily used spaces.

With some aspects operating differently than normal, Walters Steele said she had to make some difficult but necessary decisions aiding the wellbeing of everyone entering the facilities.

“We’re going to have fewer people in programs to have that six feet of social distancing,” Walters Steele said. “It’s going to be a challenge and a change for us to set up our facility to safely serve as many people as possible with social distancing in place.”

In approximately six weeks, Reynolds Homestead will start its new normal. Walters Steele expressed her excitement to welcome regular eventgoers and new faces.

“We’re excited to be able to bring people together in a safe space because we know people are looking forward to the opportunity to gather, learn and be together,” Walters Steele said.

Historical center

The Bassett Historical Center posted an update on its Facebook page in May that plans to reopen on July 20 by appointment only and will welcome visitors during certain hours.

Upon arrival, a staff member using a no-touch thermometer will perform a temperature check. Guests will also be asked to wear a face covering for the duration of their visit.

For updated information about the center’s reopening plans, follow the Bassett Historical Center on Facebook.

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