Ontario Museum Reopening
I’m sure many of you are as tired of hearing about COVID-19 as I am, but while the virus continues to spread, there continues to be news about the topic. As Ontario begins to reduce COVID-19 restrictions, the question many museum professionals must now face is how to safely reopen. Beginning January 31st, museums were allowed to open at 50% capacity with mask mandates, in line with the provincial reopening plan. This followed a January of Omicron hitting Toronto hard, with many fully vaccinated people falling sick, rapid tests being sold out, and PCR tests becoming limited for use by vulnerable populations only.
Amidst this uncertainty, several museum directors turned to the Ontario Museum Association (OMA) mailing list to discuss how to safely reopen. Many museums elected to open with the restriction that visitors were required to show proof of vaccination, following the policies set out for restaurants. A few decided not to require proof of vaccination as, in a museum setting, unlike a restaurant, guests would not be taking off their masks. Meanwhile certain museums chose not to reopen, concerned that the provincial guidelines were not as cautious of the health risks as they should have been. One member wrote that “just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.”
In light of Ontario’s new plans to fully reopen, it is likely that museums will once again face a similar question, this time with regards to mask wearing. The government has announced its plan to remove mask mandates in indoor public settings starting March 21st and to drop all restrictions by April 27th.
Doug Ford has stated that individuals may still elect to wear masks. Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, has promised that there will be a robust testing system in place for the fall. However, this leaves questions of how such a system would be implemented with the current testing limits as well as what the government plans to do until the fall. While the OMA posted a summary of COVID-19 measures for museums, it simply reiterated government directives with no further nuance or guidance.
The choice to make mask wearing entirely optional is one with far reaching consequences. Relying on elective mask wearing unfairly harms immunocompromised individuals or those unable to get vaccinated due to other health issues. While vaccinated individuals may be confident they will likely only have mild COVID-19 symptoms, they can still pass the virus on to other, potentially unvaccinated individuals. Understanding these risks, some institutions are taking stricter safety precautions into their own hands. The University of Toronto has announced they will be continuing mask and vaccination requirements on campus.
Museums are often criticized for upholding harmful societal norms such as racism, sexism, and ableism. It is our responsibility to remedy these biases if we hope to truly serve the entire public we are meant to represent. We must understand the risks we are taking in reopening and removing restrictions while COVID-19 is still spreading. Wastewater testing in the province suggests Ontario is experiencing 15,000 to 20,000 new infections a day. Most importantly we must acknowledge that these actions will unfairly target disabled people. By removing mask mandates, you may be sending a message to disabled guests that they are not welcome in your institution – that their lives will not be valued and protected. This message is utterly opposed to the responsibility of a museum to serve their communities. It is also a message that will have a long-lasting impact. Once the pandemic is over, will disabled guests go back to your institution, or will they simply remember the way their health was overlooked in favour of convenience and a dream of “normalcy”?
Of course, all this is happening while we are facing a massive pushback against restrictions from the now infamous “trucker convoy” which shut down the city of Toronto several weekends in February. If museums elect to add restrictions, they must be prepared to face pushback from these individuals who oppose mask or vaccine mandates.
How should museums best balance the desire to open their doors to the public and the ongoing risks of COVID-19? Is there a way to safely reintroduce the unique, hands-on experience of a museum visit? What is the responsibility of museums when public health authorities demand a return to normal?