The National Struggle with Unknowingness: Thoughts from a Facilities Director on Reopening

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This article is part of the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Luke Schultz

After closing on March 13, Madison Children’s Museum (MCM) staff decided there were still too many pandemic unknowns to even project a reopening date. Policies and plans were created to reduce the overall risk of exposure to our visitors and staff. But at this writing, barring any miraculous medical treatment or prevention breakthroughs, we will most likely remain closed until at least March of 2021.

Early discussions about reopening ultimately remained consistent with the museum’s mission and philosophy. We determined we could not provide children with the same freedom of open-ended play and discovery learning without an extensive—and in our view, experience-limiting—set of rules. The Madison audience is well informed, conscientious, and expects high standards. Even if we felt we could prevent or significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19 while serving young children and their families, the costs of doing so would be prohibitive, especially with the reduced numbers of visitors expected.

I have been the director of facilities at the museum for the past ten years. Before that, I worked in the field of building management. I am also married with two young children. But in a field focused on creating exhibits, programs, and social gathering places, I write from the perspective of someone charged with keeping the building clean, safe, operational, and all on budget.

Coming from the business world, I have seen a need for greater understanding of and focus on simple practices related to the physical plants, operations, and facilities side of museums. Among both existing and emerging museums, there is a field-wide focus on the museum experience, but not enough emphasis on the essential underlying facilities that deliver it. New safety requirements that have emerged as a result COVID-19 are bringing this issue to the forefront. In 2011, the museum was very lucky to have received a seven-year matching grant from the Kresge Foundation to help support upkeep and replacement of fixed assets like mechanicals, windows, the roof, etc. 

There are building and maintenance issues, large and small, with all museums.  But two primary areas of concern in my role for the museum’s pandemic response planning involve cleaning products and equipment and building air quality.

Cleaning Methods & Products

Just to have all the right equipment and sanitizers on hand is a daunting prospect. Even at the time of this writing (July), our museum has found that sanitizing products remain inconsistently available. Distributors sometimes aim products at “essential business,” and withhold them from “nonessential.” In some cases, distributors have been directed not to sell at all to nonessential businesses. Meanwhile, the same products can be available directly to consumers through Amazon or other retailers, but at a prohibitively high price for businesses buying in sufficient quantities to take care of large buildings.

U.S. Communities, a national cooperative procurement organization for the public sector that has been helpful in the past, reports that many of the products formerly made in the U.S. are now made in China and can be more difficult to obtain.

How clean is clean enough? There is “visual” clean. Traditional cleaning methods have done a good job. Everything looks clean, but how effective is that level of cleaning in this new COVID-19 environment? Our museum reached the conclusion: not good enough. We explored stronger cleaning methods and products, including a “biodome” probiotic spray-on surface coater. This statically charged sprayer encases surfaces, and protection supposedly lasts for ninety days. It is advertised to “work on mud [and other natural] surfaces.” It costs seventeen cents/square foot. It was also deemed safe for children, but when we looked at it, was still in lab studies to see if it works on COVID-19.

Cleaners that work on natural surfaces is a key selling point for us. MCM’s exhibits are known for their creative use of and commitment to natural materials. While green and environmentally friendly—and some people think less hospitable to viruses than hard surfaces—they are now harder to clean than plastic or laminate products. And many exhibit components are not COVID-cleanable at all, as many museums are now finding out, and must be removed from public access.

Building Air Quality

MCM’s HVAC system includes a “variable refrigerant volume” (VRV) system, an energy recovery unit, and boilers. Overall it is a ductless building with individual smaller cooling units in specific spaces. If the building is closed in the summer, and systems are off, humidity levels build and have a corrosive effect on materials and surfaces. Even a closed building requires maintenance and energy costs to stay ahead of the game. MCM has been running the fresh air system at night, when energy costs are lower, to keep air circulating/cooler.

What new levels of HVAC filtration will be needed to protect people from air-circulating particulates, e.g. coronavirus? We are continually checking with ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) for new COVID-19 standards. It has been suggested that some parts of the HVAC system can be enhanced with additional filters (e.g. MAVR-13 filters), but our other smaller units are not designed to accommodate additional, individually attached filters.

At one point, rough estimates for some of these add-ons would cost the museum, at a minimum, an additional $6,000/quarter. 

While We Wait

Like all children’s museums, MCM is very protective of the health and safety of children, their caregivers, our staff, and everyone in our community. We want to open, but knowing that we’re not essential and still feeling too much uncertainty about the pandemic, we remain closed. An initial PPP loan covered salaries through June. Through two difficult rounds of staff layoffs and conversion to a part-time work/share plan, some remaining staff like me have stayed employed, with health insurance.

Meanwhile, while we remain closed, the maintenance/upkeep needs of the building don’t stop. I frequently go to the museum to check on overlooked facility details common in closed or under-utilized buildings. Plumbing, for example. When toilets and sinks aren’t used, hard water buildup affects the fixtures. They will need to be replaced much sooner than they would in an actively used building. So, I go around and flush the toilets to circulate the water, waiting for the day when the museum will again be humming with activity.

Luke Schultz is director of facilities at Madison Children’s Museum in Madison, Wisconsin.

Read other articles in the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.”