By Jennifer Kilmer, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, WA

As Director of the Washington State Historical Society, I have been working non-stop on COVID-19 response and planning for my institution for the past two weeks.  Once you feel like you have responded, the situation changes and you have to develop a new strategy and response. Our continuity of operations plans (as a field) I think generally do not imagine a situation like this. We have instructions for what objects to save, but not for how to deal with a pandemic.

My efforts have had to focus on two things: 1) how to protect public health and 2) how to protect the health of my employees, keep them working and paid, and not violate labor rules. The great challenge is that the “how” changes nearly hourly based on the most recent public health data as infection grows in the community, and then the much-needed messaging must follow as well. Last week we cancelled school field trips and public programs. Yesterday we closed our museum to the public. Yesterday the Governor closed all schools in my county for six weeks. Today the Governor closed all schools statewide, and I learned it is likely my organization will have to go entirely to telework by Monday. Tomorrow I may learn that one of my employees is sick, and I will need to know and follow health department protocols for that. I say this not to scare you, but to help you understand the situation on the ground if you are not yet experiencing it yourself.

Key decision points I have experienced:

  • When to cancel school field trips and public events
  • When to cancel private rentals
  • When to close to the public entirely
  • Preparing for employees to work remotely– even people who would never do so (like mechanics) because the focus of the state is to keep people in employed status and we need to provide meaningful work
  • Notifying the union of work changes that will occur on an emergency basis
  • Planning for what employees are critical to remain onsite to secure the buildings and process bills and payroll
  • Planning for a staff infection scenario
  • Determining my “burn rate” for loss of income while we are closed, and how long my reserves will last.

My institution is one of the lucky ones because 2/3 of our income comes from the state and our employees will receive pay even if they have to self-quarantine or are sick. We aren’t facing possible financial ruin. But many other organizations are less fortunate. Only by acknowledging the reality that this virus is bringing to our institutions and our communities can we truly face these issues head-on.