Dearborn's The Henry Ford welcomes back visitors

The Henry Ford reopened on July 2 after nearly four months of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But officials at the Dearborn institution were planning the reopening before the complex closed – and before the virus even hit the United States.


Cynthia Jones, The Henry Ford's general manager of innovation experiences, says The Henry Ford's leadership stays tuned into international events as a result of its "global clientele."


"We had a pretty strong global awareness of COVID starting to spread as it was impacting first in Asia and then beyond," she says. "So we started paying attention and started asking ourselves, 'What is this that we're looking at? How might it impact our teams? How might it impact our business?'"


In addition to developing a plan for closing the complex to protect public safety, leadership at The Henry Ford began developing a 52-page "Return-to-Work Guide" that is now the guiding document for reopening. Christian Cullen, The Henry Ford's managing director of integrated operations, says he and his colleagues were concerned that they might not be able to open this summer at all "because the situation was developing and it was an unprecedented 100-year event." But they internally set July 2 as a tentative reopening date, roughly coinciding with the Independence Day holiday.

Upcoming Marvel Exhibit. Photo by Doug Coombe.


"We really came together around that date," Jones says. "And as it turns out, it's working out appropriately with the lifting of various regulations."


The Henry Ford is unique in that its premises include a museum, retail stores, and restaurants, all of which had been ordered closed in Michigan by separate executive orders. But as those restrictions lifted, events conspired to make the July 2 date possible. Members were allowed back in on that day, and the complex opens to the general public on July 9. Naturally, guests won't return to The Henry Ford quite as they left it. Capacity will be reduced to roughly 25% at both the village and museum, timed ticket reservations will be required, hours will be reduced to 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, some attractions will be closed or changed, and masks will be required in many areas.


"We really looked at the decisions on what our state would allow, what our government would allow, and what was the best for our employees and our patrons," Cullen says.


Changes at the museum


Those changes will manifest in different ways for Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum. Jones, who leads programming both at the museum and The Henry Ford's Rouge Factory Tour, took inspiration from the way her colleagues at Ford Motor Co. were bringing workers back to the Dearborn Truck Plant.


"There are over 1,000 people per shift in that building," she says. "It really gave me an awareness and response to how we prepare for volume. We run very large places. We handle a lot of folks at once. So thinking about how you would create procedures that can effectively apply to large amounts of people at a time, and thinking about change on that scale, was very helpful to me."

Distancing marker at Greenfield Village. Photo by Doug Coombe.


Jones and her staff drew up social distancing maps of the museum, figuring out which areas could accommodate larger numbers of people and which would require restricted traffic. Tightly enclosed spaces like the Rosa Parks bus will be closed to visitors, as will hands-on activities like "Build a Model T." However, the museum's "Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes" special exhibit will be opening on July 16, after having its planned March opening canceled.


Staff also determined which areas of the museum were high-traffic enough to be designated "mask-on" areas. While masks will be required upon entry to both the village and museum, visitors may choose to remove their masks in certain areas inside both facilities.


"While wearing a mask all the time at the Henry Ford is ideal, we want to make sure people know that if you're following those social distancing guidelines and we can see that you're doing that properly, there is some room for you to bring your mask down if you need to," Jones says.


While timed ticket reservations will be required at both the village and museum, they'll be especially important at the latter. Markings on the floor will indicate social distancing so guests don't bunch together in line for tickets, but Jones says staff still wanted to "make sure that not everybody shows up at 9:30 in the morning."


"We want you to be able to come in, be able to access through our entry gates and entry doors without huge crowds, and then once you're in the space there's room for you to spread out," she says.


Changes at the village


Greenfield Village will see unique changes of its own this summer. Jim Johnson, director of the village, says about half the buildings in the village will still be "accessible in some way" for guests to walk through, but staff will not be present inside for their safety. Buildings with more cramped quarters will be closed. However, Johnson says he and his staff remain dedicated to telling the village's "core stories," like that of the Wright Brothers inventing the airplane. But this summer, costumed staff will be presenting those stories outdoors while maintaining social distance from each other and village guests.


"A lot of the staff in period clothing will be wearing a bandana-style kind of mask, like a 'Great Train Robbery' kind of thing," Johnson says.

The Henry Ford awaits reopening. Photo by Doug Coombe.


Several popular attractions in the village will also be closed indefinitely. Horse-drawn carriage rides, Model T rides, and the village carousel will all be unavailable when the village reopens. Cullen says those attractions are "just not something we can do safely right now." However, train rides will still be available – with Plexiglas dividers installed between seats and the train operating at 50% capacity.


The village has also canceled its summer events, including the popular "Salute to America" concert and fireworks display. However, the event's spirit will be replicated in a special TV broadcast July 3 at 8 p.m. on WDIV, featuring archival footage from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the U.S. Army Field Band.


"To be honest with you, the first reach-out to WDIV was like, 'Boom. Yes. We're doing this,'" Johnson says. "That came together very quickly but very nicely."


Changes to come


Jones emphasizes that The Henry Ford's staff are "going to learn a tremendous amount in the first hour, the first day, the first weekend" of reopening, and will make further changes from there. Cullen says the facilities will increase capacity and operating hours based on how the initial weeks go.


"We would love to be open seven days a week the way we usually are," he says. "We're looking forward to creating the conditions where we can do that. This is a starting point."

Glass blowing at Liberty Craftworks. Photo by Doug Coombe.


Johnson notes that certain events later in the year, like the village's popular Hallowe'en in Greenfield Village and Holiday Nights, are unlikely to return in their normal form in 2020 – although he says staff is considering new ways to present them under pandemic conditions. But he says the village's initial offerings in July could be expanded on if all goes well.


"We have so many great stories that we tell, but we can't do everything all at once," Johnson says. "So we're going to look at things carefully and decide how to bring things back."


Read more articles by Patrick Dunn.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere