Employing a cautious and scientifically rigorous approach, Lowell Observatory is implementing a COVID-19 reopening plan that is aligned to the gating criteria established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The phased reopening plan’s alignment with CDC guidelines places staff, guest, and community safety first and may serve as a model for other cultural organizations and science centers.
“As a Flagstaff community leader who makes space exploration and education accessible to 100,000 visitors each year, it’s very fitting for Lowell Observatory’s reopening plan to be driven by science and data,” said Debbie Johnson, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism. “They’re setting a great example for others to follow.”
Paramount to Lowell’s reopening plan is attention to safety of both guests and staff. In addition to adhering to CDC guidelines for hygiene, physical distancing, and facial coverings, observatory staff have devised strategies that are specific to its guest experience. To protect guests from potential surface transfer of the virus, staff cover telescope eyepieces with petri dishes. These transparent barriers allow guests to see celestial wonders clearly and are easily disinfected between views.
Following CDC guidelines, the observatory’s plan does not encourage large groups of people to come to Flagstaff to visit at this time. Rather, the initial reopening phase offers an open-air stargazing experience that limits on-site guests to cohabiting or cotraveling groups of less than 10 people. “Their new Giovale Open Deck Observatory, which is completely outside and offers multiple telescopes, is a perfect feature to kick-off the reopening of Lowell to visitors,” said Johnson.
Lowell Observatory was one of the first Flagstaff businesses to close, ahead of any governmental orders to do so. This decision was based on statistical analyses of threatening COVID-19 numbers, bolstered by conversations with researchers at TGen North, the Flagstaff branch of the Translational Genomics Research Institute, which specializes in pathogen and microbiome research. “Lowell Observatory has been the first name in science in Flagstaff,” said Dr. Dave Engelthaler of TGen North. “It is no surprise that they are taking the lead in science-based decisions when it comes to opening back up to the public and when it comes to safety for their employees and their visitors.”
Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans added, “Lowell Observatory’s well-conceived plan for safely reopening reinforces the observatory’s place as a respected leader in the Flagstaff community. Their practice of making decisions based on careful, data-driven analysis is a model for others to follow.”
After closing, Lowell Observatory Director Dr. Jeff Hall helped spearhead a Flagstaff-wide initiative in which scientific and cultural partners pledged to restart public in-person programming only when they are able to implement science-based reopening procedures. The complete pledge, as well as a list of participating partners, may be viewed at https://flagartscouncil.org/covid/.
“We’re trying to encourage everyone to use best scientific practice,” said Hall. “And to that end, our reopening plan also includes a tool we have developed to estimate the risk of contracting COVID-19 in any indoor or outdoor circumstance in our facilities. We want our staff to be in a low-risk environment, and we’re offering the same to our guests.”
While the observatory has been closed to on-site guests for almost five months, its team of science educators have been busy creating a suite of online programming to keep people around the world connected to science (https://lowell.edu/youtube). Offered at no cost to the public, these programs highlight celestial phenomena like the recent apparition of Comet NEOWISE, the storied history of the observatory, and the ongoing scientific research by Lowell’s cadre of astronomers and planetary scientists. The observatory will continue to offer these free opportunities for the public to engage with science as it progresses through its phases of reopening.
Current COVID-19 reopening status for Lowell Observatory is available at https://lowell.edu/welcomeback.