One hour per month, masks are required at the Seattle Art Museum. This is why

As members of the Seattle Art Museum, Alan Akioka and his wife will always see the museum’s special exhibits before they are gone, even during the pandemic, but they are wary of crowds and continue to wear their masks in enclosed areas.

They were thrilled to recently discover that they could have the best of both worlds during SAM’s monthly mask-requirement hour.

From 9-10 a.m. last Saturday, an hour before the museum’s regular opening hours, customers could visit SAM and the Seattle Asian Art Museum knowing that everyone in the galleries, including the staff and all other customers, would be wearing a face mask.

“It’s mostly a matter of comfort,” Akioka said. “I’m not necessarily afraid of contracting COVID, but I still don’t want to get sick.”

During the pandemic, SAM has joined the guidelines of public health officials, so masks were mandatory for entry for most of last year. Since King County dropped its mask mandate in March, this new concept will hopefully be a way to bring in people who might otherwise feel uncomfortable visiting or more vulnerable to COVID-19, said Rachel Eggers, SAM associate director of public relations.

There will be two more hours that require a mask – the third Saturdays in June and July – and SAM will be open for more hours if there is a good turnout.

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SAM sold 56 presale tickets for Saturday’s mask-mandatory hour, and more than 80% of those tickets were for “Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water,” SAM’s special exhibit on the significance of water, which will open on Monday, May 30. close.

Jill Sells, a SAM member who brought her daughter to the exhibit on Saturday, advocated more than an hour a month of mask time, but thought Saturday was a good start. She still wears her mask in public places, although the mandate has expired.

“It’s a good protective measure against COVID in general, so I see no reason not to do it for now,” she said. “Certainly with rates rising here and across the country, there’s no reason to expose people more than necessary.”

Melissa Rothe and her husband took their three boys to the exhibit on Saturday, the family’s first museum experience since the start of the pandemic. When they found out last Saturday that SAM had been wearing a mask for an hour, they took free admission tickets to their King County library cards.

Rothe said more places prone to crowds would benefit from an hour requiring a mask, and her family would visit any museum that sets up something similar. Her son Ethan, 12, shared that, saying that the mask-requirement hour makes him feel safer when visiting museums, which he loves to do.

“I just like looking at all the cool stuff that people have built in the past and things that have happened for us,” he said.

Akioka said he thinks an hour a month is sufficient and efficient so that people can choose when they want to visit the museum.

Mikhael Mei Williams, SAM’s chief marketing officer, said the museum initially began discussions about an hour-long need for a mask last summer when the local government temporarily revoked its mask mandate, realizing it was a deterrent to some visitors.

“Accessibility and inclusiveness are important goals for SAM,” said Mei Williams. “We wanted to do this to ensure that we could give as many people as possible access to the museum.”

Chelsea Leingang, SAM’s assistant visitor experience manager, said the museum has had many more visitors since King County dropped its mask mandate, and most of them don’t wear masks.

“A lot of people come in with masks, and they take them off when they ask us if it’s optional,” says Leingang.

The museum has put in place security measures for staff, such as plexiglass at points where they interact with customers, and the majority of staff still choose to wear masks. Leingang said she always wears her mask when she is at work.

“Absolutely. 100 percent,” she says. “For my safety and for their safety, and kind of a front line that sticks together.”

This coverage is underwritten in part by the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times retains editorial control over this and all of its coverage.

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