Since mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many arts and cultural institutions to close for the safety of their employees and visitors.
Now, as the City of Atlanta moves beyond the first phase of reopening guidelines of reopening guidelines established by a committee led by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, “Stay At Home,” to the second phase, “Easing,” some organizations are beginning to open their doors.
Most of these attractions, including Zoo Atlanta and the Atlanta Botanical Garden, feature large outdoor spaces to allow for people to responsibly social distance. We spoke with Mary Pat Matheson, Anna and Hays Mershon President and CEO of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, about the safety protocols the garden has in place for its reopening.
Wide Open Spaces: Garden Implements Phased Reopening
The Atlanta Botanical Garden reopened to members on Monday, May 18, and it began welcoming the public on Saturday, May 23, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
A new timed ticketing system helps ensure the safety of all guests by only admitting 50 guests every 15 minutes, or 200 guests per hour.
“That way we know when you’re coming, and 200 people disappear pretty quickly on 30 acres,” Matheson said. “We can still get 2,400 people in a day and keep everyone safe.”
For now, the garden’s indoor spaces remain shuttered, as well as The Lou Glenn Children’s Garden, including its Splash Pad.
Guests are asked to wear face masks everywhere in the garden, and they are required to wear them in the restrooms. Garden staff is getting creative with its social distancing signage, which featuring taglines like “Room to Bloom,” and floral face masks will soon be available in the gift shop.
“People are doing a great job outdoors, and we want to give everyone a chance to enjoy the gardens,” Matheson said. “There’s a couple of pinch points where people take photographs, but for the most part I’ve been really pleased.”
The second phase of the garden’s reopening will be the Fuqua Conservatory and Gift Shop, reopening in two weeks. The Orchid Center will likely reopen last due to its tight quarters, and the garden’s staff is still working on a one-way loop through the Desert House.
Despite the restrictions, Matheson said a steady stream of people have been venturing out to see the garden. Through November 1, the garden is presenting “Alice’s Wonderland Reimagined,” with topiary-like sculptures from last year’s “Imaginary Worlds: Alice’s Wonderland” plus a few new additions.
Garden’s Virtual Programming is Here to Stay
During the garden’s closure, it kept fans and members engaged with videos on everything from vegetable gardening, how to prune shrubs and plant adaptations.
“Between our educational staff and our marketing communications staff, they just rocked it,” Matheson said. “We sent a lot to schools for remote learning, and one of the counties used our 8-minute video on pitcher plants for their science curriculum. I think the desire will change a bit and we’ll want more personal interaction, but I definitely see remote learning as a part of our future.”
Though the public couldn’t visit the garden, its staff brought daily photos to social media timelines with a new motto — “Life Blooms On.”
“It reminds people that the garden is here during this dark time, and that it will go away,” Matheson said.
Plan your visit to the Atlanta Botanical Garden here.
Urban Growing Community Bands Together During Crisis
Although the immediate future of some of the events held at the garden, like concerts, is uncertain, Matheson is looking for the silver linings brought by the pandemic and the continued joy the garden is bringing people.
“Our industry, botanical gardens, will be okay,” she said. “People need nature.”
And with fewer people making the commute to work, Matheson hopes we can reduce harmful carbon emissions.
“We’re looking at how we can work remotely in the long term, and I don’t think we’ll be the only ones,” she said. “If 20 percent of work could be done remotely, we could reduce emissions. I’m looking for the positive.”
She’s also observed groups in the gardening and farming community coming together to help each other during the pandemic. The botanical garden staff has lent a hand planting and harvesting at Truly Living Well, a farm on the Westside, and she also sits on the board of the Food Well Alliance, a collaborative network of leaders that builds community gardens and urban farms around metro Atlanta. She said watching the alliance continue to grow and help provide people with locally grown food has been “heartwarming.”
“It’s uplifting to see urban growers helping one another, especially right now,” Matheson said. “Because in addition to COVID, we have a crisis of humanity, and we have to work together. What better way than to grow a garden?”