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COVID Update—Fall 2021

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Credit: Illustration: Maria Stavreva, via the University of California
Credit: Illustration: Maria Stavreva, via the University of California

I had hoped that by this fall COVID-19 would be receding in our rear view mirror, and we could turn our attention to the post-pandemic future. Unfortunately, my June update, which flagged the potential for the Delta variant of the virus to fuel a resurgence of the pandemic, proved to be prescient. Delta is projected to peak in mid-October and new variants continue to pop up, some of which may prove to be as contagious and more vaccine-resistant than Delta. The information you track, and the decisions you make, will need to evolve along with the virus. In this post, I’m going to recap the current COVID situation, make two big recommendations for what your organization can do to respond, and finish with an updated list of suggestions for preparing to weather the next few months.

–Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums.

Let’s start with the good news

US vaccination rates are rising, with 53% of the population fully vaccinated and 62% having received at least one dose. With the CDC now recommending vaccination for everyone 12 or older, parents report that nearly half of children aged 12-17 have been vaccinated. The Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are all proving to be highly effective at preventing infection, and reducing hospitalization and deaths among people who are infected despite the vaccine. The FDA has formally approved the Pfizer vaccine for individuals 16 and older, and is reviewing approval for the Moderna and J&J vaccines. Also, WHO decided to stop naming variants after the places in which they originated in an attempt to reducing the geographic and cultural stigma, shaming, and violence that marred the first year of the pandemic.

Then why is the case count going up?

COVID-19 is evolving rapidly, spawning mutations some of which are more infectious and/or more deadly than the originally dominant strain. The Delta variant, first detected in the US in late May, quickly became the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the US, accounting for over 80% of cases, primarily because it is more than twice as contagious as its predecessors. It also seems to cause more severe illness in unvaccinated individuals. Another of its characteristics is particularly worrisome, despite our rising vaccination rates: fully vaccinated people can both contract, and transmit, the Delta variant. Currently, the World Health Organization has assigned letter names (Alpha through Mu) to nine variants of interest or concern and also maintains a growing list (ten and counting) of variants tagged for further monitoring.

How museums can respond

The course of the pandemic is changing quickly, and your organization should continue to monitor global, national, state, and local COVID trends and adjust your plans accordingly. We don’t know, and won’t know for some time, when the end will be in sight. (Especially as the “end” is nebulous. Rather than disappearing, COVID is likely to fade into the background, joining the flu as a constant but manageable challenge.)

I provide suggestions, below, for steps your museum might take in the face of ongoing pandemic challenges.  I’ll start with two big things, and end with a number of practical considerations.

Two Big Things:

Upate your COVID scenarios

Now, more than ever, we need to remember that the future is not fixed and singular. So many variables remain in play: COVID case counts, globally and locally; our ability to overcome vaccine hesitancy; what additional financial assistance may be provided by the government at the federal, state or local level; the focus of philanthropic relief efforts; and trends in travel and tourism, to name a few. These pandemic-driven trends, together with additional challenges of fire, flood, and storm, have increased the number of distinct, plausible futures we may face in two months, six months, or a year.

No one plan could be successful in all of these possible conditions. From the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve encouraged museums to develop a set of scenarios, encompassing several ways that this crisis could play out for your organization and your community, and to use these scenarios to develop and test create flexible, contingent plans that can you can modify, adapt, or discard as events unfold.

You can revisit my posts from March and April of 2020 for examples of scenarios and advice on how to develop and update your own. (TrendsWatch: the Scenario Edition provides additional guidance on creating and using scenarios in general.) I will also continue to look for and share scenarios developed in other sectors that can inform museum planning by modelling possible outcomes for key variables whether those are epidemiological, economic, or related to travel and tourism.

Pitch in to help end the pandemic

Step by step this can be done! Evidence of how museum rockstar Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist and Frederick P. Rose Director at the American Museum of Natural History, influenced one vaccine decision.
Step by step this can be done! Evidence of how museum rockstar Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist and Frederick P. Rose Director at the American Museum of Natural History, influenced one vaccine decision.

Museums consistently rank as being one of the most trusted sources of information—you can use your museum’s trust and influence to promote safety and health. This can be accomplished through modelling good behavior and by providing timely, accurate behavior through exhibits, programming, and messaging.

Two resources/opportunities to help this work:

Communities for Immunity is an initiative supporting the work of museums and libraries in engaging their communities in COVID-19 vaccine confidence. It provides Vaccine Confidence Resources and offers funding opportunities for museums and libraries to help build vaccine confidence and combat the pandemic. The next application deadline is October 29, and will make about 154 awards, ranging from $1,500 to $100,000, to support the creation and dissemination of information resources, and activities such as facilitating community discussions or opening and maintaining a vaccination site.

Vaccines & US, a collaboration led by the Smithsonian Institution, has created a resource hub for vaccination information for use by individuals, groups, and all museum and cultural organizations. The project’s site hosts a wide variety of videos, fact sheets, tools and resources that can be used to foster vaccine confidence. It also provides opportunities for your organization to become involved by contributing and sharing content or hosting an event.

In addition, here are some steps your museum might take to update its operations and procedures in light of the ongoing pandemic, based on my own tracking of research, news and events.

Contingency plans for reclosing/reopening.

At the height of the pandemic, essentially all US museums were closed to the public—as of June, over two thirds had reopened, and a majority of those still closed had identified an opening date. However, the Delta variant, together with slow progress in vaccination, has disrupted that recovery and some museums have reclosed in the face of rising COVID cases in their areas. Sometimes this is required by government mandates. For example, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum closed again on August 6 on instruction of the National Archives and Records Administration, which oversees presidential libraries. Other reclosing may results from a judgement call on the museum’s part: The Greater Southwest Historical Museum in Ardmore closed again in late August, to protect its volunteer staff in the face of the Delta variant, and local strains on hospital capacity.

You may want to create plans for reclosing, and re-reopening, should circumstances warrant, building on what your organization learned from the initial COVID closure. The AAM blog features extensive documentation of how various museums navigated the attendant financial and logistic challenges over the past year and a half, and our website also provides resources on preparing to reopen.

Contingency plans for critical events and programs

During the pandemic, 67 percent of museums shifted major galas and fundraising events online, and while these typically fell short of the original revenue goals for their in-person counterparts, they also were less expensive to run and often yielded a higher net return. We may be entering another cycle of such events: the Lincoln Heritage Museum at Lincoln College had to transition from an in-person fundraising gala planned for later this month to a virtual event in response to new CDC guidelines about masking and concerns about the Delta Variant. Your museum may want to prepare contingency plans for running an effective digital fundraising event as well.

Virtual programming has proved to be a highly effective way to serve museums’ existing audiences as well as reaching people who are not regular visitors to your museum or museums in general. As Brendan Ciecko documented on the Alliance blog, many museums have built effective income streams around digital content and virtual programming as well. Consider how you might continue, revive, or expand virtual programming as a buffer against potential reclosures, or a slow recovery of traditional attendance. (Recent polling from Axios shows that 60% of the public feel that returning to their normal, pre-COVID behaviors right now would pose a large or moderate risk (up from 53% two weeks ago.)

Update health and safety precautions


Early in the pandemic, before we knew how COVID-19 spread, recommendations focused on cleanliness—disinfecting surfaces, minimizing touch of public surfaces, and hand washing. Many museums (quite properly acting on what we did and did not know at that time) made changes to exhibits to minimize touching—shutting down or removing interactives, providing styluses for touch screen activation. Now there is a solid consensus that the primary vector for COVID-19 is air-borne particles, not fomites (contaminated surfaces or objects). Current CDC recommendations emphasize routine cleaning with soap and detergent, and call for disinfecting products only in situations where there have been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID. The emphasis for prevention has shifted to masking and ventilation (see below). While cleanliness is still important, you may want to review your cleaning procedures—what you use, how often it is applied—to make sure you are efficiently allocating your time and money towards COVID prevention.


When the pandemic started, mask scarcity led many people to craft their own from whatever materials were at hand. Now we have an abundance of options (though some medical grade masks are periodically in short supply). The CDC provides guidance on how to choose a mask and wear it properly.  One of the biggest issues has been, and continues to be, when to require people to wear masks, and how to enforce that expectation. AAM’s recently updated Considerations for Face Mask Policies reviews setting policies for staff and visitors, issues of training, accessibility, equity and racial implications, communications, and addresses some of the ongoing tensions over masks, enforcement of policies, and employee training.


It is now established that the COVID-19 virus spreads primarily through the air as droplets or aerosols. But our understanding of what to do about that continues to evolve. For example, it turns out those plastic barriers many companies put up to separate staff from customers, or co-workers from each other, not only don’t help, they may also make things worse. What does seem to work is maximizing air flow and improving air quality. There are a number of no and low cost steps museums can take to improve building ventilation, and museums might want to consider investing in upgrades such as portable, high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration or ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) systems as well. Download this AAM resource, Considerations for Building Ventilation, which summarizes these options.

Vaccine policies

Health officials agree that the single most important thing we can do to end the pandemic is increase the rate of vaccination. Unvaccinated people have 5 times more COVID infections than the fully vaccinated, and 29x more hospitalizations (here’s the source for those two statistics), and unvaccinated people are more than 15 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than vaccinated individuals.

In light of these facts, organizations are having to make difficult decisions about whether to require vaccinations for their own staff or their visitors/attendees. (And whether, absent proof of vaccination, to require testing.) The CDC provides guidance on navigating this issue, but notes that whether an employer can require or mandate vaccination may be controlled by state or other applicable laws. This article from SHERM summarizes the messy legal arguments playing out across the country around what employers can require, and when employees can opt out.

One consideration is how these policies can affect individual decisions to become vaccinated. Recent Axios polling data on vaccine hesitancy indicates that 43% of unvaccinated Americans said their boss requiring vaccines would make them likely to do so (up from 33% a month ago).

In light of these complexities, museums across the country are making decisions based on their own circumstances. For example, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is requiring proof of vaccination for attendees at its events, but the mandate does not apply to the associated museum because that is run by the federal government, and the foundation that funds the library events can’t impose the requirement. Earlier this month, the mayor of New York City announced that all visitors and staff members at museums and other cultural institutions would have to be vaccinated. Though imposed by the city, this mandate aligned with the consensus of the arts organizations affected by the decision. Other museums may decide to impose a vaccination or testing requirement without an external mandate. Earlier this month the Museum of Science, Boston issued a press release saying it would require all employees and volunteers to be vaccinated by mid-September. Not long after, the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey announced that when it reopens on September 12, it will require guests over the age of 12 to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for entry. I am sure you have seen more examples in the news.

Contact tracing

Early in the pandemic, contact tracing was a highly valued way to help “flatten the curve. The International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art went so far as to recommend that museums adopt visitor registration and contact tracing, and many museums did implement such measures. However, given how highly contagious Delta is, epidemiologists are pointing out that contact tracing may no longer be effective—by the time exposed individuals are located, they will have already passed it along through several chains of transmission. (Australia recently abandoned contact tracing for this reason.)

Temperature checks

Another practice widely instituted at the beginning of the pandemic was temperature check for staff and visitors. (This article summarizes current statewide recommendations regarding temperature screening.) Over time, however, doubt has grown over the efficacy of this precaution for a number of reasons including the accuracy of the contact or remote thermometers and the variability of COVID symptoms. (Also the increasing number of vaccinated, asymptomatic individuals who may be contagious). While it may seem harmless to provide an additional level of screening, however imperfect, some health officials have pointed out that it may create a false sense of security. It also uses up staff time and financial resources that might be devoted to more effective precautionary measures. If your museum has instituted temperature checks, you may want to review the current literature, and evaluate whether it still plays a useful role in your COVID precautions.

Optics matter

You may have noticed a theme in the updates above: some things that organizations spent a great deal of time and money on at the beginning of the pandemic (disinfecting surfaces, contact tracing, temperature checks) may not be an effective use of resources when it comes to risk management. But the facts about efficacy, and risk, aren’t the only important factors to weigh in deciding what to do or stop doing. While zealous cleaning has been derided by some as “hygiene theater.” But it is important to foster a sense of safety for both visitors and staff. (58 percent of respondents to AAM’s “Impact of COVID-19 on People in the Museum Field” survey indicated that “creating a safe physical work environment” was an important step their employer took to make them feel safe and supported.) In making decisions on how to allocate scarce resources—money for equipment and supplies, staff time to implement procedures—you need to balance the cost with the benefits of various preventative measures, even if those benefits are mostly psychological.

How is your museum preparing for this fall?

One of our strengths as a field is that museum people are generous in sharing their experiences with each other. Please share information on how your organization is approaching these decisions—planning to reclose, continuing virtual programming, setting policies on vaccinations, upgrading ventilation. You can use the comments section below, tag @futureofmuseums on Twitter, or write to me directly at emerritt (at) By pooling our wisdom, we can be stronger together. Take care.


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