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'The museum experience will change': After losing millions, Richmond museums hope to reopen mid-June

Local and state museums in Richmond — including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Science Museum of Virginia and the Valentine — shut their doors in mid-March at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

Now, two months later, after some local museums have lost millions in revenue and suffered staff reductions, they are waiting to reopen to the public.

But when they do, it will be in a very different landscape and in a very different world.

“We had no idea that two months later, we would still be closed. [The first day we closed,] I was at the museum around our normal opening time thinking to myself, ‘Two weeks. We can manage this,’” said Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Many local museums are planning for a coordinated series of openings in mid-June, depending on when Gov. Ralph Northam lifts restrictions.

Whenever museums do reopen, what they do know is this: “The museum experience will change,” said Bill Martin, director of the Valentine. “At least in the short term.”

For starters, many museums, like the Valentine and the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, are considering opening with time-reserved ticketing in place to control crowds and stagger visitors.

“Showing up to a museum on a weekend with a large group of people probably isn’t going to happen for a while,” Martin said.

At the Science Museum of Virginia, “We’re planning to have a reservation-type system with a reserved time slot for controlled attendance, dramatically limiting the amount of people who can be here at one time,” said its director, Rich Conti.

Many museums will be providing a controlled path through their galleries to help control the flow of traffic and to avoid potential bottlenecks.

“Our priority is to start slow, with a low capacity of regular time slots throughout the day, to give people breathing room throughout the galleries,” said Jamie Bosket, president and CEO of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

At many museums, visitors will arrive through one entrance, follow a guided path through the museum, and leave through a separate designated exit to prevent crowds from crossing paths.

At the VMFA, for example, visitors will enter at the McGlothlin Wing and exit through the Education Entrance.

“We’ll be implementing that as long as we feel it’s necessary and prudent,” Nyerges said.

At the Science Museum, “We’re thinking of a linear flow that will bring you from one gallery to another,” Conti said.

Here’s what else will be different:

PPE: Many museums are still discussing what the appropriate level of personal protective equipment should be, not only for the staff, but also for visitors.

At the VMFA, Nyerges said all staff will be wearing masks and gloves when they’re working in public areas. The museum is looking into installing plexiglass shields in certain areas like the customer service counter to protect staff and visitors.

At the American Civil War Museum, a spokesperson said its staff is planning to follow what other museums do when it reopens.

“We expect that masks will likely be required by visitors and staff as part of a larger safety and hygiene strategy,” said spokesperson Jeniffer Maloney.

Sanitizing and cleaning: All museums are working on aggressive cleaning and sanitizing strategies for when they reopen.

“We’ll be doing extra sanitizing of every square inch of the museum, doing a deep cleaning of all offices and public spaces” at the VMFA, Nyerges said.

At the Science Museum, high-touch surfaces — like elevator buttons and handrails — will be wiped down once an hour versus once a day pre-coronavirus, Conti said.

Financial hit: Like restaurants and businesses, museums have taken a massive financial hit from the coronavirus. For many museums, shutting down for eight weeks has cost millions, and they’ve had to lay off or furlough staff.

At the VMFA, 221 part-time staff members were furloughed. At the Science Museum, 51 part-time positions were furloughed, and 61 full-time staff members were required to take a reduction in work of one day per pay period.

“We lost between one and a half million to two million [in revenue] from the closure,” Conti said. “It’s pretty dramatic. This was not a good time for it to happen.” He said that if the closures continue, the museum will probably face more personnel changes.

“Like everyone, we’ve cut every dollar of discretionary spending. We bought a lawnmower and are cutting our own grass to eliminate landscaping costs. It’s what you do to survive,” he said.

A ‘shared’ museum experience: Local museums have been meeting — via Zoom — to come up with a set of shared protocols for what the “new museum experience” will look like, at least in Richmond and the surrounding counties, when they reopen.

“We want to convey a sense of solidarity and comfort [with the public] that we’re using similar practices,” Conti said.

“We want people to feel safe, comfortable and invited,” Bosket said. “I think the more similarities we have [between museums], the easier it will be for people to prepare and to feel comfortable.”

Theaters closed: Most theaters inside museums will be closed, at least temporarily, when museums reopen, like the Leslie Cheek Theater at the VMFA and the IMAX Dome at the Science Museum.

Big events canceled: Events that would have drawn a large crowd at most museums have been canceled or rescheduled.

“The reality is that we’re going to do everything we can to mitigate the chance of having massive crowds,” Nyerges said.

Many museums, like the Virginia Museum of History & Culture and the Science Museum, have moved their lecture series and webinars online and ramped up digital offerings, like VMHC’s new Thirsty Thursdays with Richmond Beeristoric, where viewers can learn more about Richmond’s beer history.

Restaurants and cafés: The VMFA is hoping to reopen the café, Amuse restaurant and the retail shop at the same time when the museum reopens. But there will be changes, like disposable menus at Amuse, and servers potentially in masks and gloves.

Special exhibits: Some special exhibits had to be rescheduled, changed or scrapped.

“Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Sunken Cities,” the new ticketed exhibit coming to the VMFA that was scheduled to open in May, had to be rescheduled. Now, the museum is hoping it will open around the Fourth of July and be extended into January. But nothing is certain. The Egyptian Ministry of Culture will be sending a courier to oversee the opening of the crates, and those plans are still being finalized.

At the Valentine, an exhibit on 1920s fashion in Richmond that was set to open in May will be rescheduled, tentatively, to July 20.

At the Science Museum, a summer exhibit called “Planet Shark” was planned to arrive from Australia, but organizers are still figuring out whether it can be held at the museum now amid all the changes.

Staffing: While many staff will be required to work on site — such as customer service, security and retail — others may be allowed to continue to telework at some museums like the VMFA and the Science Museum, depending on the position. But those plans are currently being worked out.

Outdoor spaces: At the Valentine on Monday, officials reopened the garden to the public to serve the doctors in the neighborhood.

“Museums are the chance to slip away and reflect. This [pandemic] has been a lot. We as a culture are going to need to break and think. What better place than to come sit in front of a beautiful painting or walk through a beautiful garden or see a great house?” Martin said.

Agecroft Hall is also hoping to open its gardens to the public sooner than the building’s reopening. Visitors will likely be encouraged to wear masks.

The Richmond Shakespeare Festival, typically held at Agecroft throughout the summer, may be moved to the late summer or early fall.

“We are currently working through the logistics, but our vision is to host an abbreviated festival,” Anne Kenny-Urban, Agecroft’s executive director, wrote via email. “Instead of constructing the usual theater in our outer courtyard, we will install the stage on the back lawn. This will allow patrons to safely socially distance from one another in their own chairs and on their own blankets spread across the lawn.”

It won’t go back to normal all at once: Museums don’t expect audiences to flock to their galleries when they reopen. Directors say it could take weeks or months before people feel comfortable enough to return to public spaces like museums and historic sites.

“With the research that we’re seeing, there will be a significant period of time before people are comfortable going to a public gathering place,” Bosket said. “And we have to be prepared for that.”

Regardless of when the museums reopen, many are planning to see reduced visitors and reduced revenue for weeks or months, and potentially through the end of the year.

The outlook for many museums, at least for the near future, “is a little bleak,” Conti said. “We’re in the people-and-places industry.”


Plus
breaking
WATCH NOW: Va. parole board puts 30-day hold on release of Vincent Martin, convicted in Richmond officer's slaying

The scheduled parole of Vincent Martin, convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1980 for killing Richmond police officer Michael Connors, has been put on “temporary hold” until the Office of the State Inspector General can investigate how the Virginia Parole Board reached its decision, the board’s new chair said Monday.

Former Portsmouth Police Chief Tonya Chapman, who began work as the board’s chair on April 16, said in a statement that she believes it would be prudent to delay Martin’s release “for a period not to exceed 30 days, pending the conclusion of this investigation.”

The inspector general’s office is conducting an administrative investigation into the board’s “policies and procedures” as they pertain to the board’s decision to release Martin, said Chapman, who did not take her position until after Martin was granted release.

“This has been a difficult decision and was not made lightly,” Chapman said. “However, it is important to afford OSIG an opportunity to review the matters before them. The board remains confident in its decision to grant parole to Mr. Martin and looks forward to the conclusion of this administrative investigation.”

Hours before Chapman announced her decision, the officer’s family in New York was notified by Lisa Bowen, the Parole Board’s victim services counselor, that Martin would not be released on parole Monday, as had been scheduled. But the relatives were not provided any additional information.

Chapman’s announcement came one day after several state Republican leaders joined a number of Virginia police officials, state law enforcement organizations and some commonwealth’s attorneys in urging Gov. Ralph Northam to halt Monday’s scheduled release of Martin.

Citing the Office of the State Inspector General’s investigation of the Parole Board decision to grant Martin parole, the Republican leaders pleaded with Northam to stop the release “if not indefinitely, at least until the inspector general’s findings are completed.”

“The urgency of our request cannot be overstated,” they wrote in a letter dated Sunday. “Absent an immediate intervention by you, Vincent Martin walks free tomorrow. We owe it to the victim’s family, to the Richmond Police Department, and to all Virginians to ensure the process of granting parole is consistently legal, fair and just.”

The letter was signed by House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment of James City County, along with Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, and Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, immediate past chairmen of the House and Senate courts of justice committees.

“That the Parole Board would even consider Mr. Martin a suitable candidate for release is a cause for serious concern,” they wrote. “But having been made aware recently of some highly irregular actions surrounding the Parole Board’s decision to release Mr. Martin, we believe further investigation is necessary before allowing his release.”

“When Mr. Martin was considered for parole last year, his release was not recommended,” the lawmakers added.

“We have been given no clear information regarding the Parole Board’s abrupt reversal on Mr. Martin’s suitability for release.”

The legislators repeated concerns raised by state and national police organizations, including the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, the Virginia Sheriff’s’ Association, the Virginia State Police Association and the national Fraternal Order of Police, who have sent the governor letters in the past two weeks urging him to intervene.

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin, a Democrat, also has asked the board to reconsider its decision, citing concerns about Martin’s suitability for parole, the public’s safety should he return to Richmond, and whether the board correctly followed several required procedures.

McEachin said her office wasn’t notified of Martin, now 64, being granted parole until after the board made its decision.

“Obviously,” McEachin wrote, “[this] does not allow the commonwealth’s attorney time to offer information relative to parole of an inmate, while that information could inform the board’s decision about whether to release the individual” — as Parole Board policy dictates.

Virginia’s public safety secretary, Brian Moran, who has been working with Northam on the Martin parole issue, commented on the issue Monday shortly before Chapman announced the temporary hold on Martin’s release.

“I think the Parole Board’s position is that they are confident of their decision but they want to make sure that any uncertainty around the process that was used [in granting Martin parole] is eliminated,” Moran added. “So a third-party investigation will do that.”

In mid-April, when the Parole Board’s decision was made public, then- Chair Adrianne Bennett said the board conducted its own investigation of Martin’s conviction — reading hundreds of pages of trial transcripts, among other things — and concluded there was a “dark cloud of injustice” in the case.

In particular, she noted the “conflicting testimony” of the three co-defendants — Martin’s accomplices on the night of the killing — who all testified against him.

Bennett also highlighted what she termed as Martin’s rehabilitation in prison, where she said he earned a reputation as a “trusted leader, peacemaker, mediator and mentor.”

Martin was tried twice . His first capital murder conviction, for which a jury recommended he be sentenced to death, was overturned because of concerns about the potential bias of a juror who ultimately was not selected.

Another jury empaneled in 1980 also found him guilty and recommended a life term, which a judge imposed. But since he was convicted before Virginia abolished parole in 1995, Martin was eligible for parole during the ensuing years of his confinement.

Former Deputy Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacy Garrett, who prosecuted Martin, said he was flabbergasted when he learned earlier this year that Martin was up for parole.

“I had never been contacted by the Parole Board — on anybody — to know that he was up for parole,” Garrett said recently. “And I question why, all of a sudden, is he going to be released. I was told that it was pretty much a done deal.”

Garrett, who still practices law, said Connors’ slaying on Nov. 13, 1979, “was a premeditated, calculated execution of a police officer trying to do his job,” who wasn’t aware that Martin and his three buddies had just robbed a 7-Eleven store when he pulled them over in a traffic stop.

Garrett said that at the time, Martin had already been twice convicted of robbery and released, and knew that if he was arrested and convicted again while on parole, he would be sent back to prison. “He didn’t want that, and that’s why he did what he did.”

Martin has declined, through prison officials, to comment on his parole.

After Connors stopped the suspects’ car that night, Garrett said evidence showed that Martin exited the right passenger door. Connors ordered Martin three times to get back in the car, but Martin refused.

Shortly thereafter, Martin pulled a gun and shot Connors in the neck, and he fell to the ground. Martin then leaned down and shot the officer four more times in the side of his head, killing him, Garrett said evidence showed.

“There were powder burns from Martin’s gun on Connors’ face,” the prosecutor said. “The medical examiner, at trial, said he retrieved stone and gravel from the side of officer Connors’ head, where the force of the bullets forced his head down to the pavement.”

“This whole scenario was observed by the passengers in the car through the rear-view mirrors,” Garrett added. “Those three guys had no clue that Martin was going to do that. None whatsoever.”

Maureen Clements, one of Connors’ sisters, said her family on Monday was still “absorbing” the news of Martin’s parole being delayed.

The family members gathered Sunday for a Mother’s Day brunch and clasped hands in solidarity, wearing bracelets with Connors’ badge number, 192.

The officer’s parents, Patrick and Patricia Connors, 86 and 87, respectively, were in attendance and had celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary on Thursday.

“We’re dancing a little victory dance over here,” Clements added, “but we’re also taking a deep breath because there was no explanation on why” or what will ultimately be decided.


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Virginia
WATCH NOW: Virginia will separate antibody results from total testing: Northern Virginia reopening likely delayed

Virginia health officials are working to separate as-yet unreliable antibody test results from the state’s broader COVID-19 test count, the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday.

Also Monday, Northam said that while public restrictions will tentatively begin easing in most of Virginia on Friday, Northern Virginia might be excluded. Northam said that while the state overall is seeing a decline in the share of positive cases and hospitalizations, trends in Northern Virginia suggest that region is not ready for social restrictions to ease.

The Virginia Department of Health confirmed on Friday that its testing numbers include an unknown number of antibody tests, likely boosting the state’s testing totals. Virginia continues to lag in testing.

Some public health researchers and Virginia’s own state lab director have said many of the antibody tests on the market have not been vetted by federal regulators and do not measure the current spread of the active virus, unlike the diagnostic tests used by health care facilities. Antibodies are proteins that help fight off infections, and their presence in a person’s bloodstream can signal a previous infection.

“Without [federal] guidance, we went for as much testing as represented in the community. Going forward, we’ll look into how to untangle those,” said Virginia Health Secretary Dan Carey during a briefing with reporters.

Carey said that the state’s count of positive cases does not include antibody tests. Antibody tests are, however, included in the total count of tests, which the state uses to track its testing progress.

The state also uses that number to calculate the share of positive results among all tests — or the positive rate — a number that could be skewed down by antibody tests. In Arizona, health officials confirmed last week that the state’s low rate of positives was likely driven down by about 10,000 antibody tests.

Antibody testing could eventually help shed light on what share of the population is immune to COVID-19, and could help separate people who never showed symptoms of an infection from those who have not contracted the virus. Research on the topic is ongoing.

Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and public health expert at Johns Hopkins University, said the two types of tests should be separated for analyzing the spread of COVID-19.

“It is a totally different type of test, and it’s not clear what the validity of those tests are. It’s true that you can use [antibody] testing to understand what portion of the population may have been infected in the past, but you can’t understand that based on looking at the group of people that saw an ad and decided to get tested.”

As Virginia inches closer to its phased reopening amid a declining rate of new cases, the state still has not met many of the key testing goals laid out by public health experts, federal officials and the state’s own leaders.

At the same time, Virginia’s testing rate continues to rank near the bottom compared with other states. In a ranking by Johns Hopkins University published Sunday, only Puerto Rico and South Carolina rank below Virginia in cumulative testing since the pandemic started.

Northam said he knows some people compare Virginia to other states, adding, “perhaps there are variables, different factors. The team is working really hard,” he said on Monday.

“I make no excuses for Virginia. I think we’re in a good place.”

Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, said that including antibody tests, also known as serology tests, aligns Virginia with some of the other states Virginia is being compared to.

“If we’re going to be compared to all 50 states I want it to be apples to apples. … It became clear other states are including serological testing. If you’re going to be comparing us to other states, and be critical of the volume of tests we are doing, and not comparing apples to apples, I think that’s grossly unfair.”

Northern Virginia

Northam reiterated on Monday that the reopening guidelines he previously laid out are a floor. He said localities can call for additional restrictions, but that it is important that regions act in concert.

The share of new COVID-19 cases among everyone tested in Northern Virginia remains high at around 25%, compared with around 15% statewide. Mercer said that 73% of all new cases in the state come from Northern Virginia.

Northam pointed to a letter he received Sunday from leaders in Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington counties and the city of Alexandria in which they ask that the region be excluded from the state’s phased reopening if it kicks off on Friday.

“While it is certainly useful to examine statewide metrics as we gauge the success of current public health policies, we feel strongly that any changes to current policies be guided by what is occurring in our region,” they wrote. The letter was signed by Mayor Justin Wilson of Alexandria, and Chairs Libby Garvey of Arlington County, Jeffrey McKay of Fairfax County, Phyllis Randall of Loudoun County and Ann Wheeler of Prince William County.

Northam said he would share more details on Wednesday about the plan for restrictions in Northern Virginia. Northam also said he expects to make a decision Wednesday solidifying Friday as the beginning of the state’s phased reopening.

Daily numbers

The Virginia Department of Health reported Monday that the state has 25,070 COVID-19 cases, an increase of 989 over the 24,081 reported Sunday.

The 25,070 cases include 23,889 confirmed cases and 1,181 probable cases. Also, there are 850 COVID-19 deaths in Virginia — 823 confirmed and 27 probable. That’s an increase of 23 total deaths from the 827 reported Sunday.

In April, the VDH started including probable COVID-19 cases and probable deaths in the state’s overall tally. Probable cases are people who are symptomatic with a known exposure to COVID-19 but whose cases have not been confirmed with a positive test.


Local
breaking
On 5-4 vote, Richmond City Council adopts revised 2020-21 budget with more changes likely

A split Richmond City Council has approved a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that even its supporters acknowledged will require routine revision because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We do know there will be changes; there will be further impact,” said Cynthia Newbille, the council’s president. “This isn’t going to be a one-shot deal.”

Mayor Levar Stoney cut $38.5 million from the budget he first proposed in early March, before the pandemic took hold. Last month, he put a revised, $744.1 million plan on the council’s virtual desk. Over objections from some members, the council approved that plan on a 5-4 vote during a remote meeting held Monday night.

Supporting the budget were Andreas Addison, 1st District; Stephanie Lynch, 5th District; Ellen Robertson, 6th District; Newbille, 7th District; and Michael Jones, 9th District.

Opposing the plan were Kimberly Gray, 2nd District; Council Vice President Chris Hilbert, 3rd District; Kristen Larson, 4th District; and Reva Trammell, 8th District.

Council members who objected to the revised plan said it didn’t adequately account for fallout from the pandemic that has prompted widespread business closures and thousands of job losses. They said they wanted to delay a vote for two weeks to review and make adjustments based on newly released financial data from the most recent quarter.

In particular, opponents questioned whether an estimated 10% drop in meals tax revenues was realistic, given the damage the pandemic has done to the city’s dining scene. Eateries across the city have closed their doors and laid off staff. Some have said they will not reopen.

Even if the state moves toward a gradual relaxing of public health restrictions, there’s no guarantee residents will patronize the businesses as they did prior to the pandemic, Hilbert said. In light of that, he called the meals tax forecast “wildly optimistic” and joined others in lobbying to delay the vote.

“These devastating economic times go deeper than what is being proposed,” Gray said.

Before the public health crisis, Stoney proposed a $782.6 million budget. That proposal would have funded 2% raises for city employees and $16 million in new spending for Richmond Public Schools.

Amid COVID-19, Stoney cut out the raises; $10 million of the new funding for city schools; and funding for a dozen new positions planned for the Departments of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, Animal Care and Control, Human Services and the City Attorney’s Office.

In the plan approved Monday by the council, revenue from real estate, personal property, meals, businesses and other tax sources are projected to be 5% to 15% lower than the plan Stoney originally pitched.

With business closures and thousands out of work, tax revenues from consumer sources — meals, sales, admissions, lodging — could fall even more, Gray and others said.

Proponents of the plan didn’t dispute that concern, but they pointed to a previously discussed arrangement to review and amend the budget on a rolling basis throughout the fiscal year, which begins July 1 and lasts through June 2021.

“We have a lot of work in front of us on a monthly basis when we look at the actual revenues that come in and the actual tough decisions that we may have to make down the road when we get some real numbers,” Robertson said.

In a statement after the vote, Stoney echoed the need for flexibility and collaboration between the council and his administration: “This budget is not the budget we first proposed, nor is it the budget we wanted, but it’s the budget we have to live with in light of these most difficult and challenging times. Amid the uncertainty of this pandemic, we must be prepared to make adjustments as we go, and we fully expect to do so in the coming months.”

***

Also Monday, the council approved an amnesty period for real estate and personal property taxes. Late payers will not be charged penalties or interest if their balances are settled by Aug. 14. The initiative aims to provide relief for residents and businesses unable to pay by the regular June deadlines.

The council also approved a resolution requesting the administration cease pre-employment and random drug testing for marijuana. The resolution, proposed by Lynch, does not apply to public safety employees, or city employees suspected of using the drug while on the job. Starting July 1, simple possession of marijuana will be decriminalized in Virginia.

Council members also endorsed a strategic plan to address homelessness. The plan calls for 150 new shelter beds and the addition of 300 new units of supportive housing, among other steps.

The council’s next meeting is scheduled for May 26.


Coverage inside

CARES Act

Virginia will send local governments $650M in federal aid. Page A3

Reopening

Some experts say rushing could be risky for the economy. Page A6

Long-term care

Testing urged for all in nursing homes; Va. facilities’ deaths exceed 500. Page A8

Baseball’s return

MLB owners want to start season around the Fourth of July. Page B1