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After three months of being closed because of the COVID-19 lock-down, the Sciencenter reopened its mini-golf course Wednesday, and plans to reopen the museum on a limited basis next week.  Sciencenter Executive Director Michelle Kortenaar said that only specific parts of the museum that do not encourage touching will be open, and attendance will be limited to a quarter of the museum's allowed capacity, which will mean no more than about 60 visitors will be allowed in at a time.

"We're going to open part of the building for places with things you can't touch. Our animal room,  out Touch Tank -- because you can put your hands into the touch tank. Salt water's apparently Okay. And we have a few full body experiences. We have the infrared camera that you can move your body and see what's happening. But we're not going to be able to open large parts of the museum for a little while and we're just going to keep waiting for guidance and hoping it comes soon."

The lockdown has impacted the Sciencenter in many ways that it has impacted many businesses and municipalities, and in some ways that present unique challenges.  One of the key elements of the lockdown is lower revenues and higher expenses.  That meant that staff members were furloughed, but Kortenaar is in the process of bringing them all back, noting that they will all be back before the federal CARES act expires.

Hits to Sciencenter income have been significant.  Everything closed down just as the museum's typically busiest season was about to begin.  School field trips and tourist visits didn't happen this year.  Kortenaar said the Sciencenter usually anticipates this busy period producing about 25% of the income from admissions in the school year.

"We get income from admissions. We have some grants, we have a store. The store sales, of course, have been zero through this. We also have a portfolio of traveling exhibits that we rent to other museums across the country that provides us with income, but all those other museums... every museum had closed. So we've lost a significant amount of income from that as well," she said

Another financial blow is the decision to cancel the Sciencenter summer camp. Some of that hit will be mitigated by an online camp that several people have already signed up for.  For the price of admission campers will receive an activity kit with the same materials in each, and will attend camp on Zoom twice a day.

She said one potential bit of good news is that donations have gone up for the period of the lockdown.  But she cautioned that the Sciencenter normally receives more donations in the last quarter of a typical year.

"What's hard to know is whether what we've done is shifted earlier into the year, or whether this was new funding," she said. "If you're one of the people that thinks the science center is a critical part of the community, you want to help to make sure that it's still here. People, especially long term supporters have said this year I'll make sure that I support a bit more."

The Sciencecenter's online offerings, established to temporarily replace live visits to the physical museum, have been unexpectedly popular, not just with local people, but nationwide.  A Philadelphia newspaper actually reported on the Sciencenter's online activity programs.  Kortenaar says that as the staff comes back they will be scaling back the online programs starting next week, in order to concentrate on reopening the physical museum, and concentrate on outdoor programs they are planning.. 

"I think children are zoomed out," she said. "As the weather started improving, we noticed not a huge drop off, but sort of a drop off from the number of people who, who actually attend. So we're going to refocus. But it's in our back pocket. One of the things we've been thinking a lot about is how to engage people that find it harder to get to here. More rural communities, and this might be a way, although we also know that there's a real big digital divide that not everybody has access."

The materials needed to sanitize exhibits and things at the museum that people may touch will add to the cost of running the museum, but Kortenaar says that 're-purposing' employees who would normally have manned the front desk, or are on the education and exhibits teams will help with the cost of cleaning, while also maintaining their jobs until such a time as they can return to their normal tasks.  The will take turns sanitizing everything in the open portions of the museum, every two hours.

In that vein, the number of things museum visitors might tough are being reduced as much as possible, such as leaving doors open that might normally be closed between exhibit halls.  The mini-golf course doesn't have much that needs touching, and Kortenaar said they will encourage golfers to move things with their feet, rather than handling them.  The Sciencenter will use peroxide based sanitizer that is EPA and the CDC approved, but it's not as damaging to exhibits.

Staff will also help maintain social distancing of people in the museum and at outside activities.  They will be counting visitors at the door to make sure that only the allowed number of people are in the building at a time.  Attendance will be staggered for activities like the 'trout release' where people can come for a time and then leave to make room for other people.  If it turns out that museum attendance is higher than the 25% allowed capacity, they will consider a reservation process.

"I keep saying to my team, we do iterations of programming. Like let's try this and see if it works and make changes," Kortenaar says. "We do that with everything we do, because this is unprecedented and none of us know what this is going to look like. So we're we're trying something. And I feel like one of two things is going to happen: either nobody will come or we will be inundated. What we're hoping for is something in between those two things."

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