How Do We Find the “New Normal” in Indoor Public Spaces?

By Andrew Schnurr

Over the past few months, you’ve seen people reciting the mantra, “This too shall pass.” It’s true that these challenging times will resolve, but we must also acknowledge their impacts will remain for a long time. Looking at the world through the lens of public life, few areas will be more impacted than indoor public spaces. Whether it’s our local libraries, museums, or even shopping malls, the impacts of COVID-19 on these places will be visible for years. We can’t expect to return to what we once had, even once we have a vaccine. It’s time to rethink the methods by which we deliver impact and the timeframe in which we hope to do so.

In order to reopen public spaces and return to somewhat “normal” operation, advances need to be made on two fronts. Firstly, there needs to be physical safety for the people engaging with these spaces — they have to be able to interact without the risk of getting sick. The second, more subtle criteria for reopening, is ensuring people are mentally and emotionally comfortable in the spaces. Less than a year ago, many of us wouldn’t have thought twice about going to see a movie in a theater. Now the very premise of being in close proximity to strangers in an enclosed space seems unthinkable. Even with the strictest government restrictions and social distancing measures in place, I’d be uneasy putting myself in that environment — and I’m not alone in that thinking. Given these conditions, any successful reopening plan will need to happen in stages. Some local and state guidelines will likely not satisfy the expectations of visitors to the space which places a heavier burden on indoor public spaces to ensure the safety of visitors.

Our experience and recommendations focus on indoor public spaces. While some of these principles can be applied to other types of spaces, it does not address the additional financial pressure that some indoor businesses may face as they reopen.

CultureHouse Indoor Public Space at Harvard Square

Before any stages of reopening can take place, it is essential to refer to local, state, and federal guidelines for restrictions and guidance in your decision making. Pay special attention to local guidelines, as they will have policies in place that cater to the unique needs and attributes of their communities. These guidelines will likely give you fairly clear directions on what is and isn’t possible at a certain point in the reopening process.

Through research and our own experience reopening, here are the suggestions and strategies we found helpful throughout this process.

Setting limits for the number of people in the space.

  • This is flexible depending on the location and the space available, but this is generally the limiting factor in reopening plans and governs a lot of the other considerations in the decision making process.

Entry and Exit

  • Planning so that people can enter and exit the space while maintaining social distancing and avoiding contact with surfaces is crucial to ensure the safety of all people that interact with the space.
  • This is also a good opportunity to take part in contact tracing operations, and having people sign in, or provide some contact information, as they enter is helpful in the case of a suspected outbreak.

Screening

  • While many states and municipalities require businesses and indoor spaces to conduct basic screening, not all do. Regardless of whether implemented at the state or municipal level, this is an important step in ensuring the safety of both visitors and employees in the space.
  • There are many different types of screening, which usually involve asking people at the door whether they’ve experienced symptoms recently or been in contact with those experiencing symptoms.
  • Another effective screening technique is to use a contactless forehead thermometer to check the temperature of people entering the space.

Masks and Sanitization

  • At the screening check-in stage, it is important to remind/require people to wear masks at all times when in the space.
  • It has also become standard practice to have a hand sanitizing station at the entrance of the space so that people can sanitize their hands as they enter.

Symptomatic People

  • In the event that somebody is in the space and expressing COVID-19 symptoms or has a thermometer reading that indicates a fever, it is useful to have a protocol in place for how to deal with people in this condition. This plan varies depending on the type of activity these people plan to do, and whether they’re an individual or in a group.
  • There should also be a plan for how to manage the situation when one person in a group is denied entry upon screening.

Accessibility

  • Deaf visitors who read lips may require screening from a worker wearing a clear face covering or one with a see-through window over their mouth.

Signage

  • It is essential to make sure that your policies and COVID-19 restrictions are clear and easily available for users of the space to see.
  • Signage can include informational posters, or even delineate physical distancing with 6ft separated dots on the ground for lines, as many businesses have started doing.
  • Organized physical infrastructure is just as important as signage in many cases.

Virtual Queuing

  • Another method of reducing congestion and overcrowding is to use virtual queuing to organize visitors to your space. At CultureHouse, we’ve been using youcanbook.me. There are many other paid options that provide other features that may be useful for certain purposes.

An additional way indoor public spaces are affected by these new measures is by the type of programming that’s able to take place. Museums contemplating reopening are now reconsidering what types of exhibits they’ll be able to open to the public. One museum manager says, “[she’ll] miss seeing children excitedly pushing buttons and pulling levers, [but] that type of interactive display is likely a thing of the past.” Here at CultureHouse, our programming has been similarly limited. The only physical activity currently available being socially distanced ping pong. Regular events such as trivia, movie nights, and regular operation as a public space is no longer viable amidst these new restrictions.

It is also essential for indoor public spaces to adapt to the new virtual landscape that has quickly become a part of our public realm. We did this through our CultureCloud program, where we hosted regular online events for both our local and broader online community. While this doesn’t supply a steady stream of income for businesses that may need it, this strategy helps preserve and maintain the communities that indoor public spaces normally foster.

Fostering Community at CultureHouse Kendall

Indoor public life will take a long time to return to what it once was, and it may never happen. This is the new normal, and we have to develop and test strategies that continue to foster livability and encourage human connection, but also maintain individual safety. This means that we have to utilize what we have to make the most out of our situation. This can mean anything from spending more time on developing outdoor spaces (which pose a lower public health risk), testing out innovative new ideas, and juggling a thoughtful approach to public safety with a “no regrets” kind of decision-making process.

CultureHouse is a nonprofit organization that improves livability in local communities by facilitating the creation of public social infrastructure through the transformation of unused spaces into vibrant places to work, play, and foster connections. To start a get in touch, partner with us, and learn more about what we’re all about, visit culturehouse.cc.

CultureHouse improves livability in local communities by transforming unused spaces into vibrant social infrastructure.