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News >  Travel

At tourist sites, masking up without diluting the experience

By Vicky Hallett Special To The Washington Post

What’s the best kind of mask to wear with a tricorn hat? That’s a question for the CDC. And also the other CDC: the Costume Design Center at Colonial Williamsburg, which is tasked with outfitting the museum’s staff of interpreters in garb suitable for residents of an 18th century Virginia town.

The team of milliners, tailors and textile experts has been studiously sewing face coverings since the spring, so everyone working on the 300-acre property, whether they’re maintenance or Martha Washington, has masks made on-site. And interpreters – their faces mostly clad in plain, simple fabrics – can wear ones that are as historically accurate as possible.

That’s just a single piece of the careful choreography required to bring visitors back to Williamsburg, says Beth Kelly, the museum’s vice president for education, research and historical interpretation. The fife and drum corps is missing in action (because blowing air is a no-no), but new walking tours have been introduced to keep guests warm outside by moving around.

Staff members are now responsible for opening doors to keep extra fingers off the handles, and they’ve mastered the art of posing 6 feet behind visitors at an angle that looks good in photos. “A picture with a costumed interpreter is high on the guest wish list,” Kelly notes.

As tourist attractions across the country gradually reopen, many are attempting to craft bespoke safety procedures that don’t distract or detract too much from the visitor experience.

Simply deploying lower-capacity limits, face coverings, hand-sanitizer stations and social-distance signage usually gets the job done. But for folks to feel actually transported somewhere special, it helps to inject a little creativity.

Washington, D.C.’s International Spy Museum now hands guests a “spy gadget” stylus to interact with its touch screens and encourages using masks to create disguises. At the Witte Museum in San Antonio, visitors are reminded to stay the length of one bison apart from other humans (and invited to buy a T-shirt with that image at the gift shop).

QR codes unlock Virtual Keeper Chats at the Kansas City Zoo, so anyone there – or at home – can learn polar bear and cheetah facts while the in-person programs are suspended.

Perhaps one of the most closely watched reopenings in the country has unfolded at Walt Disney World, which must conjure up a way to make safety feel magical to kids and their families. Its blue cast-member masks “sparkle with pixie dust and Mickey constellations,” according to the DisneyParks post announcing the debut of the design, available in pleated and contoured styles.

Visitors in Orlando might notice cast members holding up something else in front of their faces: “smile-on-a-stick” props featuring the grins of beloved characters like Donald Duck and Goofy. And as for the princesses who populate the Magic Kingdom, their royal appearances are now conducted via parade-style floats to keep their fans from getting too close.

At President Lincoln’s Cottage – the historic Washington home where Abraham Lincoln and his family lived when they needed a break from the White House – it was a particularly vexing question, says Michelle Martz, visitor services manager. “One of the first things we had to decide is that we couldn’t do the cottage tour in a traditional sense,” Martz says. Instead, they started thinking outside the house.

When Lincoln’s Cottage reopened this summer, it was for outdoor storytelling tours for groups of 15 or less and a social studies program with book readings and crafts for children (one pod per socially distant picnic table).

As the temperature has dropped, Lincoln’s Cottage has pivoted again to offer a self-guided indoor experience. A guide speaks to visitors in the parlor, the largest room in the house, and then they are free to explore on their own, encountering meaningful Lincoln quotes and a writing prompt activity along the way.

Safety is the driving force behind all these program decisions for visitors and employees. Martz says every time a plan comes up, it is presented to guides so they can share feedback, ideas and concerns. One employee question was about face masks. All of them were on board with putting them on, Martz says, “But what do we do if visitors won’t wear them?”

At President Lincoln’s Cottage, employees have practiced scenarios to defuse tension, putting an emphasis on empathy and education, Martz says. They’ve worked out plans to back each other up, so they’re reinforcing the message together, and there are masks and face shields to offer anyone who might arrive without a suitable covering.

There’s also a touch of humor, says Martz, pointing to signs on the property that ask visitors to stay “one Lincoln apart,” and show a cartoon of the 6-foot-4 president lying horizontally. Martz notes when he was accused of being two-faced in a debate, Honest Abe famously joked, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?” “So like Lincoln did, we take things seriously, but moments of levity help,” she adds.

With historical sites, however, comedy must be doled out judiciously, cautions Colonial Williamsburg’s Kelly. “We try not to get too cutesy about anything,” she explains. “We’re not doing anything with ‘Ye Olde Citizens,’ so it’s clear and understood easily.”

Old houses without modern ventilation systems are about the trickiest kinds of sites to safely bring people into these days, which is why it’s such a feat that the Governor’s Palace was and remains the most visited building at Williamsburg.

Groups are smaller than in the past and being let in less frequently, says Kelly, who notes the home is sanitized between visits. “We have to be careful with antiques and paneling,” she says. “We try to give time between tours to give the air time to flow.”

It’s a similar situation at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the first president’s estate near Alexandria, Va. Letting folks explore the outdoor area – gardens, stables, forest trail – hasn’t been much of an issue. But the mansion isn’t that big, says Tom Plott, who manages Mount Vernon’s character interpreters.

Although it has reopened for limited, first-floor-only tours, guests are asked to speak as little as possible while inside. “We say, ‘We’re going to do a walk-through. Snap photos, and we’ll chat about it afterward,’ ” he explains.

Mount Vernon character interpreter Matt Mattingly, who appears as George Washington’s secretary, Tobias Lear, researched infectious diseases during colonial times and found documents about a yellow fever outbreak. The advice at the time, Plott notes, included wearing a scarf or handkerchief over your face (although it wouldn’t have actually done much good to stop the pesky mosquitoes responsible). “So if anyone asks, ‘Would you really wear a mask?’ We can say yes,” Plott says.

Behind the scenes, he adds, their major challenge is figuring out where to put on their costumes. They need more spaces and staggered schedules so everyone has time to pull up their breeches and slip into their gowns solo.

Adequate dressing rooms also are one of the myriad requirements for bringing live shows back to Las Vegas, which is just starting to happen this month. MGM Resorts is testing the waters with a slate of seven options, including the Jabbawockeez, the renowned dance crew conveniently already known for busting a move while wearing masks.

“If there’s anyone who understands how to do this, it’s them,” says John Flynn, MGM Resorts International’s vice president of administration, who’s overseeing the company safety strategy.

Jabbawockeez performances have been shifted to MGM Grand Garden Arena, a space that used to hold about 15,000 spectators. Now, it’s reserved for an entirely masked audience of no more than 250, seated in pods of two to six seats, each separated by the requisite 6 feet of space in every direction. Between the front row and the stage, there’s a 25-foot gap.

This sizable distance is standard for their live entertainment offerings, Flynn says, and it allows comedians Carrot Top and Brad Garrett to go maskless during their shows. But everyone’s masked backstage, and many performers now wear face coverings even as part of their acts, including the burlesque babes of “Fantasy” and the clothing-averse Aussie men in “Thunder From Down Under.”

Such precautions were put to the test almost immediately when a member of magician David Copperfield’s backstage crew tested positive for coronavirus. Performances were paused for several days while everyone potentially exposed awaited test results. But then the show went on.

Despite plenty of blocking changes and strategically placed barriers, Flynn is proud that once the lights go down, seeing any of these shows feels relatively normal. “It allows you to forget what’s going on,” he says. And no matter who’s performing, that sounds pretty spectacular.

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