LAS VEGAS — At Meow Wolf's new Omega Mart experience in Las Vegas, specially themed hand sanitizers seem to be stationed in every corner.
Employees and visitors are wearing face coverings. Some workers in the 52,000-square-foot grocery-store-themed immersive art space blend in with the crowd and are seen wiping down steel rails and door handles.
A few workers are stationed by doors and open them as visitors walk in and out. The place is busy, but most visitors are mindful of not standing and walking too close to another person.
This scene illustrates what it's like walking into an indoor-themed entertainment space during the coronavirus pandemic.
Located just a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip, inside Area 15, an experiential retail and entertainment center, Omega Mart is Meow Wolf's newest indoor art attraction. The Santa Fe, N.M.,-based art and entertainment production company, has also recently reopened its flagship attraction, the House of Eternal Return in New Mexico.
For a company that is accustomed to attracting visitors into an immersive indoor setting, Meow Wolf has had to modify some of its prominent features to comply with new safety measures and to assure visitors that it is still a safe environment amid the pandemic.
Touching certain areas, feeling walls, and crawling through tiny spaces into and out of certain rooms — hallmark experiences for many of Meow Wolf's attractions — are not part of this one.
Meow Wolf's attractions are often described as psychedelic amusement parks or adult funhouses. But opening Omega Mart and reopening the House of Eternal Return have been particularly challenging during the pandemic, according to Ali Rubinstein, the co-CEO and chief creative officer at Meow Wolf.
As theme parks across California get ready to reopen, Rubinstein, a former Walt Disney Imagineer, said that amusement and theme park operators have to weigh what attractions to keep open, close, or safely modify without compromising the attraction's integrity.
"You have to provide a safe environment while also protecting your ability for a fun and engaging experience for your guests," she said.
Spectrum News 1 spoke to Rubinstein about the challenges Meow Wolf faced in reopening House of Eternal Return and in opening Omega Mart amid the pandemic. Rubinstein also offered advice for other theme and amusement park operators as restrictions are lifting and they begin to reopen.
Like in California and New Mexico, Nevada has restrictions on how many people can gather inside an indoor space.
When we shut down in Santa Fe, we had a reopening target date. I think, like everybody, we were hoping to open by the summer.
We took advantage of the time to upgrade our attractions and rooms and brought in new artists into the House of Eternal Return. But we really spent a lot of time looking at our procedures and how to upgrade the House itself to be a safe environment for visitors during the pandemic.
We did that in a few specific ways:
The elements that used to be high touch are now achievable by scanning a QR bar code on your phone. We closed off very tight passageways, where close contact was possible. We made them still visible from an Instagrammable point. You can still take a picture of it, but you can't go through certain small tunnels. We actually made some one way only. You can still experience it and walk through the refrigerator, fireplace, etc.
We upgraded our HVAC system, put temperature scanning in place, and we're operating in a safe and reduced capacity.
We know we have a very safe environment for people to enjoy the experience without taking away a lot of the fun.
Similar to the House of Eternal Return, we had to go through Omega Mart to ensure all of our activities were going to be safe from a social distancing and high-touch standpoint. We've minimized touch where possible and more regular cleaning in the place where there is a touch opportunity. We have people stationed there and cleaning in between guest usages.
We have reduced capacity per Las Vegas guidelines. We have limited the ability for people to get close contact in the space.
We were very fortunate to retain and bring back a lot of our original employees in the operations. There is a high familiarity with the House of Eternal Return, and we're adding a layer of understanding that guests have to wear a mask. We have to remind [visitors] to wear a mask, maintain social distancing, do temperature checks, and increase cleaning and sanitization of the exhibition throughout the day. We are training them on all COVID safety measures and adding that layer of awareness.
We're also requiring all of our operation team to get regular [COVID-19] testing. We're minimizing any safety risks there because all team members are getting tested regularly. (The COVID-19 testing is paid for by the employer's insurance.)
Similar to any unruly behavior, the lack of wearing a mask inside the exhibition will not be tolerated. Period. End of story. If a guest does not want to wear a mask, they'll be asked to leave. Masks are required for this exhibition.
Like any kind of unacceptable behavior inside an exhibition, our operation staff is very well trained for that, and this is just another aspect of it.
You have to do it as safely as possible, ensuring that guests can enjoy the experience but at a safe distance, and inclusive of wearing masks. Whatever is core to your experience, whether it be themed entertainment, artistic venture, theme park, whatever it is, ensuring that you are not losing the core of that experience and still supplying guests with an environment that feels and is safe.