HOUSTON — They waited patiently in line in 80-degree heat, standing on large blue stickers placed six feet apart, to enter the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — the first major American art museum to reopen since the country went into lockdown in March.
The 20 or so mask-wearing visitors who queued up on Saturday morning had already waited more than two months to visit, so what were a few more minutes? First in line was Joan Laughlin, a nurse who has been coming to the museum since moving to Houston in 1970. She was here to see “Glory of Spain,” an exhibition of works from New York’s Hispanic Society Museum and Library.
“It’s good to be out of the house,” she said. “I’ve been looking for something uplifting, something beautiful.”
It was Sara Patel’s first-ever visit. Ms. Patel, a Houston physician, came with her boyfriend, who was visiting from Chicago. “They’re following all the rules,” she said about the elaborate safety precautions taken by museum staff members. “As long as everyone is complying, I think it’s fine.
At precisely 11 a.m., the museum’s director, Gary Tinterow, stepped to the front of the line. “Welcome back to the museum,” he said. “Thank you very much for coming.”
As visitors filed into the air-conditioned foyer, one group at a time, thermal imaging devices checked their temperatures. A green square around the person’s head meant they were in the clear; a red square meant fever.
Gov. Greg Abbott allowed museums in Texas to reopen on May 1 at 25 percent capacity, but most cultural institutions in the state have opted to wait. Among the first to come back was the Museum of Fine Arts’ neighbor, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which opened its doors on May 15. The museum’s many interactive exhibits were turned off, and visitors were required to wear masks, but its president and CEO, Joel Bartsch, said the museum had no problem filling its quota of 1,000 daily visitors.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Mr. Bartsch said. “We had a very good turnout, and everyone kept their distance. Not one person complained about having to wear a mask.” Other Texas museums opening soon include the Holocaust Museum Houston (May 26), the San Antonio Museum of Art (May 28) and the Witte Museum in San Antonio (May 30).
Mr. Tinterow was on hand at the science museum to observe opening day. “I saw that all the visitors were behaving, and that people were excited and relieved,” he said during a recent interview in his office, where he wore a pinstripe gray mask that recalled an Agnes Martin painting. “That gave me confidence that if they could do it, we could do it.”
Procuring safety supplies and equipment fell to Andrew Spies, the fine arts museum’s head of housekeeping. Mr. Spies sourced hand sanitizer from a lubricant manufacturer in North Carolina, which shipped it to Houston in 250-pound drums; 10,000 disposable masks from a warehouse in McAllen, Texas; a dozen thermal imaging devices from Feevr; and disinfecting solution from the germ-fighting experts at the Children’s Museum of Houston.
The Museum of Fine Arts is one of the wealthiest cultural institutions in the country, with a $1.3 billion endowment that provides about half of its $67 million annual budget. Thanks to its solid finances, the museum didn’t have to furlough or lay off any of its 660 staff members during the two-month shutdown — unlike the science museum, which furloughed 75 percent of its staff and is only now bringing some of them back.
But even the richest museums have their limits. Mr. Tinterow said that if the museum had remained closed past June 1, furloughs would have been considered. Ticket revenue accounts for about 7 percent of the museum’s operating budget, with memberships contributing another 5 percent.
The Menil Collection in Houston, a smaller museum with strong collections of ancient, Oceanic, and modernist art, offers free admission and hasn’t taken as big a financial hit from the forced closure. The museum has not announced a reopening date, and its director, Rebecca Rabinow, would only say it will return “sometime this summer.” “Our opening is tied to decreasing Covid-19 hospitalizations, and we’re just not seeing that yet,” Ms. Rabinow said. “We’re seeing a stabilization but not a decrease.” She also noted that the Menil’s intimately scaled galleries made social distancing more difficult.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated May 20, 2020
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?
There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
How do I take my temperature?
Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.
That isn’t an issue at the Museum of Fine Arts, which comprises two major buildings connected by an underground tunnel designed by James Turrell. With around 300,000 square feet of gallery space, the museum can accommodate up to 7,000 visitors in normal circumstances. With the museum now using timed tickets to limit entry to 900 guests at a time, each visitor will have a studio apartment’s worth of space to themselves if they space out equally. (If they don’t, the museum guards have been trained to politely ask them to separate.)
“Nobody’s going to complain about having only a few visitors in each gallery,” Mr. Tinterow pointed out. “Isn’t that actually the ideal scenario?”
Mr. Tinterow, who annually racks up 200,000-plus airline miles jetting around the world to visit exhibitions and art fairs, has used the lockdown to work on scholarly projects and engage in personal reflection. A former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mr. Tinterow has several friends in New York who have died from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“Artists, galleries, and museums are suffering right now,” he said, “but I have been saying for some time that the contemporary art world has reached a fever pitch.” He added that “it was driven by an unsustainable economic model that needs to be reviewed and revised. That means it will probably be a smaller art world with fewer participants.”
Mr. Tinterow’s new philosophy seems encapsulated by an engraved sign he keeps on a table in his office. “Less is More,” it reads.