North Carolina museums to gradually increase capacity as COVID-19 restrictions lift

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- There will still be masks and social distancing, but expect to see more people at your favorite museums starting this weekend.

Gov. Roy Cooper is now allowing places like museums, retail, and salons to operate at full capacity.

However, that doesn't mean every business will immediately make that change.

At Marbles Kids Museum in downtown Raleigh, staff said they were happy to hear the governor's announcement earlier this week, but with that excitement also came a sense of anxiety.

"We are going to slowly ramp up to 100, so we want to make sure our guests feel comfortable and our staff feel comfortable," said Madison Pharr, Dir. of Guest Experience.

Since reopening the museum at 30% capacity last September, Marbles slowly ramped up to 50% as the governor's COVID-19 regulations allowed.

Where, pre-pandemic, a typical busy Saturday at Marbles would see some 3,000 visitors meandering through its sprawling campus, Pharr said the museum is now welcoming about 780 guests a day.

The museum's timed ticketed entry staggers those visitors who tend to stay for about 2-3 hours, Pharr said.

Starting this weekend, Marbles will begin slowly releasing more tickets per time slot, allowing more families to come through its doors and explore, masks and social distancing required.

"There's a lot of space to run around and even if there's everyone here there would still be plenty of places to go," said Kaitlyn McMullin, who drove from Durham with her two kids to visit Marbles for the afternoon.

The NC Museum of Natural Sciences scrapped its reservation system, opting to restrict the number of visitors whenever the museum reached its limited capacity.

Staff said that practice will continue as the museum gradually begins increasing capacity beginning this weekend, expecting lines to be minimal.

Eric Dorfman, NC Museum of Natural Sciences Dir. and CEO sent the following statement to ABC11:

"First off, I want to say that we are very excited to be able to welcome more guests back into the museum soon. With that being said, we are also very conscious of the fact that we need to do it carefully, for the safety of our guests as well as the safety of our staff. While Governor Cooper's latest executive order allows museums to go "up to" 100% capacity, the order also reiterates the requirement that staff and guests must wear masks at all times indoors, as well as maintain 6-foot social distancing. Because many of our smaller exhibits and hands-on areas remain closed we will still be limiting capacity to ensure proper social distancing. However, we are working toward raising our capacity gradually, as we reopen more of these exhibits and hands-on areas. And we sincerely appreciate everyone's patience as we move forward."

At the NC Museum of Art, which was also forced to close until September of last year, Loma Williams enjoyed her weekly outing exploring the exhibits and then a walk through the park.

"Now that I'm back to coming regularly, I still keep safety in mind," she said. "I'm courteous of everyone else. I don't get close. I don't take my mask off."

Katherine White, NCMA Deputy Dir. sent the following statement to ABC11 following the governor's announcement:

"The NCMA is thrilled to welcome more visitors safely to the Museum campus. We will continue to require masks, provide hand sanitizing stations, and clean high-touch areas frequently. Visitors will continue to reserve free timed tickets to visit the collection, and we recommend people get them in advance on the website. We've enjoyed seeing people in our galleries since September and are happy to see more in the coming days."

While museum staff said they look forward to welcoming back their pre-pandemic attendance, there are no plans to reopen Iris, the museum's upscale restaurant located in West Building. That space is now used for socially distanced seating for Sip Coffee Bar and Café customers.

Williams said she's enjoyed her weekly trips to the museum during the pandemic, and hopes as more people join her to admire art and nature, they'll respect one another and follow all safety protocols still in place.

"They need more people for more business, more people shopping in the gift shop, all that kind of stuff, I see that," she said. "But I really think that we all have to try to stay alive first."
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