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These are testing times for museums and performance venues across the globe. With the COVID-19 pandemic still walloping the world, these institutions have been frequently forced to pause their activities, accruing mounting revenue losses, with some being forced to shutter permanently. In some cities, like Los Angeles, museums have been forced to remain closed since March of 2020. This has been a source of growing frustration among LA museums in particular, as they are required to keep their doors closed while shopping malls, restaurants, and hair salons have been allowed to reopen.
But what if museums are safer than almost any other indoor environment, assuming that safety guidelines are being followed? A recent study at the Berlin Institute of Technology (TU Berlin) in Germany claims just that, determining that the risk of COVID-19 transmission is far lower in museums and theaters than in supermarkets, restaurants, offices, or public transportation.
The study, led by Martin Kriegel and Anne Hartmann, conducted a comparative evaluation of indoor environments to assess the risk of infection via aerosol particles. The analysis considers the average length of stay in a given space (two hours at a museum; eight hours in an office; one hour in a supermarket; etc.), the quality of the airflow, the type of activity carried out in the space, and the dose of aerosol particles inhaled by people in a room, among other variables. Each environment has been given an R-value, indicating the number of people that one COVID-19 carrier can infect on average.
The researchers found that if kept at 30% capacity with everyone wearing a mask and following proper precautions, museums, theaters, and operas are safer than any other activity studied. In museums, the R-value stands at 0.5 compared to 0.6 in hair salons and 0.8 in public transportation.
Shopping at a supermarket with a mask is twice as risky as visiting a museum, according to the study, with an R-value at 1.1. Risk of infection is more than doubled when dining indoors in a restaurant at 25% capacity (1.1), or exercising in a gym at 30% capacity (1.4).
Eike Schmidt, director of Italy’s Uffizi Gallery, recently cited the study while pleading with authorities to allow the museum to remain open. The Uffizi was forced to close just two weeks after it reopened on January 21 due to a surge in cases in northern Italy. Prior to that, the museum was closed for a period of 77 days, the longest since the end of World War II.
Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), expressed the same sentiment in an interview back in October.
“We need to open museums,” Govan said. “Every other […] big metropolitan museum in the United States, is already open, other than ours. And there are hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, visitors that have visited those museums since July. And so far, not one single case of COVID transmitted in museums.”
Celeste DeWald, the executive director of the California Association of Museums, told the New York Times in a recent interview: “It’s frustrating to see crowded shopping malls and retail spaces and airports, yet museums are completely closed and many have not been able to reopen at all for the last 10 months […] There is a unique impact on museums.”
Currently, the only indoor space open to the public at LACMA is the museum’s gift shop (at 25% capacity), as it falls under the category of commercial retail space. There’s no telling when visitors will be allowed into its expansive art galleries.
In a column for the Los Angeles Times, art critic Carolina A. Miranda slammed California Governor Gavin Newsom’s policies as “absurd.”
“The wildly uneven criteria speak more to the powerful, well-funded lobbies helping shape public health policy than to anything resembling science or even common sense,” Miranda wrote. “At a moment in which it is possible to get a tattoo or paw the goods at Chanel in Beverly Hills, it should be possible to visit a museum. Period.”