A dozen eager tourists lined up near the Liberty Bell last Friday afternoon as Independence National Historical Park headed into its first weekend of operation since it shut down in March, welcoming back a trickle of guests to indoor spaces — including Independence Hall, Old City Hall, the Second Bank portrait gallery, and the glassy, 400-person-capacity shed housing the cracked hunk of bronze that has become Philadelphia’s most recognizable icon.
But in light of the pandemic, tourists were greeted with subtly mixed messaging. Signs note “face coverings are required per city/state" orders. They make no mention of the official policy of the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service: Masks are not required, even indoors. And staff can suggest mask usage, but not enforce it.
“We are not able to police that,” said Leslie Obelschuk, a spokesperson. “We’re not permitted to. It’s Park Service policy.”
She said a carefully considered reopening plan includes social-distancing protocols that limit visitors to nine per Independence Hall tour, or 20 inside the Liberty Bell pavilion. But as for masks, she said, “it’s a gray area.”
It’s a debate that has echoed through national parks for weeks, as the Department of the Interior’s rule against requiring masks conflicted with Park Service guidance to adhere to local regulations. In Pennsylvania, by order of the state Health Department, masks must be worn in indoor public spaces, as well as outdoors when maintaining a six-foot distance is not possible.
“We must ensure National Park Service employees and the public are taking at least the most basic measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources wrote in an August letter to the Department of the Interior, urging a mask mandate and demanding an accounting of its plans to run national parks in accordance with CDC guidelines.
But out of wide-open nature, in the cramped corridors of Independence Hall, those concerns take on greater urgency, said one park employee, who declined to be named because Park Service policy prohibits speaking with reporters.
“Staff are very frustrated that we cannot make people wear masks,” said the staffer, adding that it’s already become a common sight to see visitors removing their masks once they’re inside security at the Liberty Bell, or pulling them below their chins to take selfies or speak to rangers. For staff, the only recourse is to flee: “The park has been really supportive of that: If you don’t feel comfortable, get yourself out of the situation.”
Given recent light crowds, that’s been doable. But normally, the Liberty Bell can see as many as 10,000 visitors a day. According to one visitor survey, about 85% are from out of state. Right now, that could include coronavirus hot spots or places where indoor mask usage isn’t required.
“It’s not like working in a grocery store where it’s local people, so you’re really only looking at whatever the community spread is. It’s whatever the national spread is for us,” the employee said.
On Friday, people making the pilgrimage to the bell had traveled from as far as Illinois and New Hampshire, en route to weddings or detouring from road trips.
Lyn Krenz, who walked out of Independence Hall wearing a KN95 mask, said she’d driven from Bethlehem, Pa., after learning the park had reopened. She relished the opportunity for a rare, uncrowded visit to the historic site — and felt safe given the high mask usage. “I would not have gone in" otherwise,” she said.
Sarah Roesler, a Maryland resident in town for a medical appointment for her infant son, said she’d been looking forward to showing the bell to her 9-year-old daughter, Liberty. She left irritated by the security measures — like placing her belongings, including the infant’s toys, in a plastic bin that was not sanitized. “It’s a pandemic,” she said.
Obelschuk said safety for all visitors and staff remains the top priority in the park reopening effort. Smaller or particularly high-touch spaces, like the Edgar Allen Poe House and the Benjamin Franklin Museum and print shop, remain closed.
“We’re all about visitors," she said, "but we want to do it safely.”
As for staff, some have negotiated assignments that require less exposure to the public, and at least one has requested to take a leave of absence, said Jeff Sievert, acting president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 2058, which represents unionized park staff.
“My members love what we do for the Park Service, protecting such a historic site. We just hope that visitors would have the same reverence for their own health and safety and the health and safety of our members as they do for these historic buildings.”