On a pleasant morning in early September, Rockville residents Sarah Brunsmeier and Lance Davis explored an eerily quiet exhibit at the National Zoo on September 8. In a park that would typically be packed with excited children and visitors from around the world, the two stood in a nearly empty area near animal enclosures with small, masked groups at a distance. But regardless of the scant crowds, they were excited to explore the outdoor attractions at the Zoo.
The National Zoo (3001 Connecticut Ave NW) and National Air and Space Museum’s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center (14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy) reopened on July 24. Their reopening was so successful that the Smithsonian has reopened six other locations including the American Art Museum, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Museum of the American Indian, American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery.
Preparing for Your Visit
For over a century, the Smithsonian Institution has engaged locals and visitors alike with history, research and learning. Over the past several months, administrators have implemented a variety of changes to the visitor experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before visiting the Zoo, Brunsmeier and Davis had to secure a pass for timed entry, which is required for all Smithsonian locations except the Renwick Gallery where walk-ins are permitted. Passes may be reserved online for specific times during operating hours of each location. The passes are free of charge and are designed to limit the number of visitors to accommodate social distancing.
The Smithsonian sends an automated email message to guests reminding them to check for symptoms of the COVID-19 virus. While guests are not required to sign or complete the questionnaire, the institution encourages guests experiencing symptoms listed to reschedule their visit for a later date.
Because it is an outdoor site, visits to the zoo are slightly different than the indoor museums. In every other Smithsonian site, guests will be screened by security personnel. While bags of all sizes are permitted on the properties, the institution is asking guests to limit the number of bags they bring to the museums to maintain social distancing guidelines and the Smithsonian does not currently provide coat or bag storage at any location.
At the Property
Brunsmeier and Davis had almost every exhibit to themselves, with the exception of the Giant Panda enclosure, as visitors are eager to catch a glimpse of the baby panda, born to Mei Xiang on August 21. While food vendors remain open, the outdoor food court was a ghost town with only a few small family groups scattered far apart.
When COVID-19 hit in March, over 70 percent of the Zoo’s employees were considered essential workers and the staff were required to adapt quickly and efficiently to new safety measures. Director of the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute Steven Monfort told the Hill Rag that the Smithsonian and National Zoo have been working together to ensure staff and visitors are adequately protected.
“The safety and precautions that we had to take started initially with our own staff,” Montfort said. The Smithsonian implemented what Montfort called “common sense kinds of things,” including providing protective equipment and masks to employees, as well as implementing new protocols that would allow social distancing, frequent hand washing and for employees to stay home from work if sick.
Montfort praised the efforts of the staff as well as visitors for following the pandemic restrictions.
“There’s been no cases in Washington that have been traced back through contact tracing back to the zoo,” Montfort said. “We haven’t had any of our staff become infected with COVID.”
Brunemeier said she was surprised and impressed with how well other visitors were following the newly mandated restrictions of social distancing and wearing a face covering while at the Zoo.
“I haven’t really seen anybody blatantly ignoring the rules out here,” Brunsmeier said. “Everybody just wants to have fun. So might as well just do what they asked us to do.”
The Decision to Reopen
Smithsonian Public Affairs official Alise Fisher spoke about the decisions to reopen the Zoo and Udvar-Hazy center and said these reopening plans served to inform how the other museums could safely welcome back visitors.
“We’ve taken a deliberate, gradual approach to reopening the Smithsonian across the institution,” Fisher said. “We wanted to start very slowly and began with only the Zoo and Udvar-Hazy Center, in part because these are locations that lend themselves really well to social distancing and some of these other safety procedures that we need to put in place to ensure a safe experience for our visitors and our staff.”
Fisher said visitors should be conscious of the new regulations but excited about enjoying what the open locations have to offer to guests.
“(We’re) all in this together in terms of taking these precautions and making sure that we’re all safe,” Fisher said. “We’ve been really pleased to be able to start welcoming folks back safely and really love to see them back on site.”
- The National Zoo and the Udvar-Hazy Center: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. everyday.
- National Museum of African American History and Culture: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
- National Portrait Gallery: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
- American Art Museum: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
- National Museum of the American Indian: 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
- National Museum of American History: 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Friday through Tuesday
- Renwick Gallery: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday.
- Face coverings are mandatory for all guests ages six and up. Guests aged two to six are strongly encouraged to wear a face covering.
- Limit personal belongings to practice social distancing as they will be subject to a thorough search.
- Guests should not visit the museums or park if they are feeling ill or have experienced symptoms of the COVID-19 virus.
To learn more about the Smithsonian, the new COVID-19 policies and restrictions and to reserve tickets, visit (si.edu).
Sarah Payne is a History and Neuroscience student at The University of Michigan interning with the Hill Rag. She writes for and serves as an assistant news editor for Michigan’s student newspaper, The Michigan Daily. You can reach her at [email protected]