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Tuesday July 28, 2020 | by Arina Novak

How to Reopen Safely: Glass studios share best practices to keep staff and studio users healthy in a time of pandemic

As the Covid-19 pandemic first swept the United States and Canada in the Spring of 2020, glass studios were forced to shut their doors to the public. While studios turned to online classes and exhibitions, announced relief funds, and published extensive lists of resources for artists idled by the shut-down, glass-making professionals waited patiently to get back into the studio workspace equipped with actual furnaces, tools, and equipment to once again work with their chosen material. As state by state, the U.S. tentatively opens its doors, all eyes are on the best practices to follow to keep staff, renters, and students safe from the ongoing threat of contagion. In anticipation  of tomorrow's Glass Art Society (GAS) community conversation (online on July 29, 2020 from 11 AM to 12 PM PDT), where panelists Anjali Srinvasan (Massachusetts College of Art and Design), Brian Kibler (UrbanGlass), Brynn Hurlson (Public Glass), Jiyong Lee (Southern Illinois University), and Jens Pfeifer (The Large Glass Department at Gerrit Rietveld Academie) will lead a public discussion, the Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet reached out nine studio heads to talk about health and safety in the studio environment. 

Though is wide variation in the rates of new cases of Covid-19 around the U.S. and Canada, the safety practices to best run a glass studio in pandemic times are remarkably consistent. We spoke with studio heads at UrbanGlass (Brooklyn, New York), Pittsburgh Glass Center (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), Sonoran Glass (Tucson, Arizona), Appalachian Center for Craft (DeKalb County, Tennessee), Public Glass (San Francisco, California), Espace VERRE (Montreal, Canada), Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, Ohio), Ignite Glass (Chicago, Illinois), and the Studio at The Corning Museum of Glass (Corning, New York) to discuss changes, reopening challenges, and plans for the future. All glass studios promote remarkably similar health and safety protocols which include social distancing guidelines, mandatory face coverage, continued operations at limited capacity, and deep sanitation of the facilities.

The studio at UrbanGlass in Brooklyn.
The studio at UrbanGlass has recently reopened to renters and manufacturers. The studio is an open-access facility where 380 professional artists and designers can convene and utilize a wide range of glass-making equipment. Brian Kibler, director of operations, shared the reason behind relatively early reopening. “We feel that the artists that use our space are mainly manufacturers, so we were trying to provide them with the ability to make money to run their companies.” Kibler commented on the first month of reopening by sharing a useful strategy. “We divided people into five groups based on how much money they spent during previous years at Urban and asked to consider taking one slot a week or arrange two rental slots upon request, then we would rotate the schedule between those five groups.” After the early reopening phase, the system will transition to a first-come, first-served basis. However, Kibler shared his concern about the studio budget, “I know people who have orders that they are finishing from March; however, once we get into August, there are not many new orders to work on,” meaning that the manufacturers and renters might not seek access to the workspace as much as they did in July. 

Kibler emphasized the significance of making the safety protocol simple and easy to follow. He noted that the 2020 Recovery Plan is “a living document as we are learning new things about the disease every day.” In summary, the terms of Health and Safety Community Policy focus on the major adjustments to the studio’s daily operations. To access the space, the visitors have to make reservations, even if they wish to implement any non-rental studio activities, such as packing or pick up. Upon arrival, all visitors are required to do a temperature check one hour before the rented time slot and asked a series of questions to help assess exposure to the virus. Classrooms will be available for lunch hours with each chair placed per six-foot radius. Kibler elaborated on the importance of the disinfection process by explaining, “we had to track all of the frequent touchpoints in the studio and pointed out fourteen different areas.” Tools and equipment will undergo daily sanitation by staff; however, renters will have to bring their own glassblowing equipment such as blow hoses, mouthpieces, swivels.

Full access to the organization's 2020 Recovery: Health and Safety Community Policy can be found on the UrbanGlass website.  

Pittsburgh Glass Center (PGC) will be reopening its doors to the public on July 21, 2020. The reopening operations in limited capacity will allow visitors to pick up the items previously made in classes, shop at the glass boutique, and check out the exhibition in the Hodge Gallery. Even though there will be no classes in July, the Center is planning to offer private classes for small groups shortly. As the reopening operations begin, a list of safety measures can be found on the PGC website. To ensure the safety of its visitors, the PGC now houses hand sanitizing stations, social distance signage, plexiglass shields at the front desk. 

In the email interview with Hot Sheet, Heather McElwee, executive director of PGC, shared the challenges that the Center has faced in light of the reopening operations:

“The challenges we faced to get to this point were mainly around communicating expectations with customers (wear a mask, social distancing, etc), sourcing adequate sanitizing supplies for our building, training staff on new cleaning procedures, and addressing fear staff might have about reopening.” PGC is a part of ArtsBourgh, a group of museums and cultural organizations located in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The collective is collaboratively preparing for the gradual reopening by developing the best practices to ensure the safety of community spaces. 

Arizona-based Sonoran Glass School is planning to reopen its doors to the visitors in September 2020. In a telephone exchange with the Hot Sheet, the Executive Director Lynn Davis shared her thoughts on reopening operations, “[Aside from the CDC guidelines], when we reopen, we are planning on instituting an appointment-setting protocol via phone, meaning that before anyone arrives on campus, we will have a set of guidelines stating our expectations of the visitors when they arrive for an appointment or class. We will also do temperature checks at the door as well as a checklist questionnaire.” Davis particularly emphasized the importance of a self-assessment questionnaire because it helps to track the exposure to the virus.

Davis also underlined the significance of social distancing and reducing the visitor capacity. “We have a hot shop, a warm shop, and a flame shop. We are taking a look at those physical spaces to determine what we need to do to accommodate social distancing,” she explained, “We rearranged the kiln set-up in the flame shop. We are also planning to put physical barriers, such as plexiglass in between torches. We are going to decrease the number of people who can participate in the warm shop at the same time. In the hot shop, we won’t do glassblowing with students, unless they bring their own pipes.”

Even though there will be no public programs this summer, Sonoran Glass School is planning on doing open studio hours two nights a week in each of the shops in September. However, the studio time will run with a decreased number of visitors allowed in the space, as well as with reduced equipment so that the studio has more room between people.  

Appalachian Center for Craft,  reopened its doors to the public on July 1, 2020. In the email interview with the Hot Sheet, Debra Ruzinsky, the director of the craft center, shared the terms of safety protocol and some of the changes in the daily operations. “Academic classes will be starting back in late August. Across campus, we are installing many wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispensers. There is a campus-wide policy to wear masks if you come within 6 feet of anyone else,” she added, “Students will be focused on solid work projects initially. Classes, typically with no more than 10 students, will be divided into smaller sections.” Moreover, Ruzinsky spoke about the workshop tools, “the department purchased new blowpipes and is assigning one per student. [The department] is also rigging up a machine blowing system so that no one blows on anyone else's blowpipe at any time. There will be alcohol pump bottles at benches to keep tools clean.” 

Additionally, Ruzinsky elaborated on the current reopening situation, “We also would normally be teaching community and high school workshops at this time but we have canceled all in-person workshops through the end of the calendar year, converting to online classes where we can.” However, the retail sales gallery and exhibition spaces have reopened and can accommodate up to 6 people at a time. To maintain public safety, all onsite staff are wearing masks and keeping 6 feet apart.

Public Glass has reopened its doors to renters but remains closed to the general public. Brynn Hurlstone, director of operations, commented on the difficulties of reopening during a phone interview with Hot Sheet

“Essentially, what we are doing is having to manage the personal comfort level of every person who walks through the doors. We begin with the health requirements that have been imposed on the city in light of the virus. If we have new compromised people who would like to come in, then we have to modify the situation in the studio for each person’s comfort level, which could be a bit challenging.”  

Another challenge that Hurlstone talked about is keeping up with the state and city guidelines. Hurlstone noted that each time the staff receives updated safety measures from the city, the studio must have an update in its protocol. She pointed out her growing concern for the cases. “Even though San Francisco did well in the first round not having too much exposure in the city, soon we might be seeing the second wave. Therefore, we, unfortunately, have to talk about closing and discuss the viability of business during that time. We rely on the products that we sell and the donations of our community to keep us going.”

On the subject of reopening to the public, the director of operations disclosed a helpful strategy that Public Glass chose to follow. “What we have done is align ourselves with the gyms in the area, meaning that once gyms will reopen, we might consider hosting in-person classes.” Due to the current situation, Public Glass is not planning to resume public programs at least until January of 2021, committing to virtual programming for now. For the foreseeable future, Public Glass is considering private lessons that would allow the students to choose who they could come in contact with to avoid being exposed to multiple households' worth of germs if something were to happen. Additionally, Hurlstone mentioned considering online classes in the shop, where it would be easier to keep distance while following the instructor from the distance. 

Espace VERRE, has been practicing new safety measures during its reopening operations. Dylan Duchet, a technician at Espace Verre, discussed some of the changes in the email interview with the Hot Sheet. The facility is filled with signs, reminding the visitors to wash their hands and keep a social distance. Aside from daily deep cleaning procedures, Escape VERRE provides bottles of hand sanitizer to glass artists and students to help clean their hands and disinfect the equipment. Moreover, there is a daily form that all incoming people have to fill out to assess if they have been exposed to the virus or are sick themselves.   

“Another important procedure that had to change is lunch breaks,” Duchet explained. “For lunchtime, we accept 8 people in the kitchen but no one can use the cooking utensils of the school and anybody can cook. We install some Plexi panels where people are too close. We changed the paper distributor for an automatic system with an eye sensor.” In regards to the tools used during the workshop hours, Duchet shared, “We bought more Kevlar gloves, face shields and clothes for the kiln so people don’t use the same gloves and clothes. We alternate each day (even days and odd days). The virus stays approximately 12 hours on textiles so with more than 24 hours of confinement we are good.” 

Toledo Museum of Art Glass Pavilion reopened its doors to the public surrounded with strict COVID-19 policies and procedures. According to Alan Iwamura, the TMA glass studio manager, after assessing the reviews of the industrial hygienist and infectious disease specialists, the TMA came up with comprehensive safety protocols comprising daily operations, like sanitation regimens, limited capacity in the glass studios, scheduling format, PPE requirements, and adjustments to communication and building protocol. Iwamura described the details of the reopening procedures to the Hot Sheet: “We have adjusted studio tools such as block handles to utilize non-porous materials that can be easily sanitized. The current TMA studio rental schedule allows for one team in the studio at a time with one-hour blocks in between rentals which are used for cleaning and sanitation.” Moreover, Iwamura noted the importance of collaborating with other glass studios around the country to develop the safest practices in glass studios. 

The TMA is tentatively planning a master class series for Summer 2021 while keeping in mind that public programming must be reconsidered due to the rapidly changing landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic. Iwamura shared that “public glassblowing demonstrations have been limited and relocated to our outdoor courtyard at the Glass Pavilion which provides ample space for physical distance.” However, Iwamura acknowledged that “if circumstances are deemed unsafe by either the glass studio management team or the TMA Task Force, we are prepared to alter and/or cease any activities that might compromise the health and well-being of our staff and community.” The TMA Education Department has developed the kit-based learning experience which is complemented by the virtual learning experience. 

Ignite Glass studio demonstration

After its closure in March 2020, Ignite Glass has been struggling with reopening operations due to the exponential rise of COVID-19 cases in the state of Illinois. Mary-Kate Moroney, director of operations at Ignite, commented on the situation with a somber note, “We don’t know when we’ll be able to do the hands-on glassblowing again.” Like many other glass professionals, Moroney believes that shared glassblowing tools would facilitate the fast spread of the virus. Additionally, Moroney shared her ideas on the potential reopening strategies in the studio spaces. Ignite is planning to implement extreme sanitation of the facility, particularly paying attention to the equipment. Additionally, there will be health checks before coming in and liability waivers provided. 

Even though the studio space remains closed to the public, Ignite Glass is gradually welcoming back the visitors for special events. Moroney explained, “currently, we are committed to hosting small events that focus on glassblowing.” However, the events do not involve hands-on workshops to avoid close contact with the teacher as well as fellow students. Moroney noted that Ignite is solely hosting events based on glassblowing demonstrations. “Our first event is dedicated to a small group of high school graduates who will be asked to point out color and shape to our glass artist behind the stanchions,” she explained. This interactive activity allows Ignite to maintain safety practices and gather the community back together. 

The Studio of the Corning Museum of Glass

The Studio of the Corning Museum of Glass is an internationally renowned school of glassmaking located on the grounds of the Museum. Upon its reopening, CMOG published an extensive guide with the set of rules and practices to help combat the spread of COVID-19. In the message to the community, Amy Schwartz, director of The Studio, announced that The Studio team has implemented a protocol for reopening with health and safety precautions. She assured the public that The Studio is making adjustments to occupancy and enrollment limits, and Studio users and visitors can expect Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) requirements and social distancing rules. Moreover, she shared an exciting addition to The Studio equipment, an alternate inflation device which allows glassblowers to safely inflate hot glass. The device comprises a specially fitted adapter that connects to the blowpipe. The gaffers can inflate the glass by simply using a pedal. The device is capable of inflating the glass with ten pounds of pressure.  

The Studio visitors should keep a mask on at all times with a few exceptions, such as exiting the building while maintaining social distance, entering a designated lunch area, and a special “mask removal room” where one would stay in private with an opportunity to disinfect clothes with the supplies provided. It is recommended that visitors wash their hands frequently by using a disinfecting soap provided in every Studio’s classroom. The Studio came up with the set of rules for each of the workspaces. For example, the kiln working space in the hot shop will operate with limited occupancy, limited to two people in the kiln room, and eight people in the large communal workroom. Each visitor is responsible for cleaning the tools before and after the use. Moreover, the Studio is limiting rentals to individuals from local counties until August 1st, 2020. The same guidance with varying occupancy guidelines applies to furnace working, flameworking, coldworking, and engravings.

To participate in the Glass Art Society's Community Conversation tomorrow afternoon at 11 AM Pacific Time (2 PM Eastern), you need to register to receive a Zoom link. Visit ttps://www.glassart.org/gas-community-conversations-studios-after-covid-19-jul-29/ for more information.

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.