As members of the Seattle Art Museum, Alan Akioka and his wife are always sure to see the museum’s special exhibits before they’re gone, even during the pandemic, but they’ve been wary of crowds, continuing to wear their masks in enclosed spaces.

They were happy to discover recently that they could have the best of both worlds at SAM’s monthly mask-required hour.

From 9-10 a.m. last Saturday, an hour before the museum’s regular opening time, patrons could visit SAM and the Seattle Asian Art Museum knowing that everyone in the galleries, including staff and all other patrons, would be wearing a face mask.

“It’s mostly a comfort level thing,” Akioka said. “I’m not necessarily afraid of catching COVID, but I still don’t want to get sick.”

Throughout the pandemic, SAM has aligned with the guidance of public health officials, so masks were required for entry for much of last year. Since King County dropped its mask mandate in March, this new concept will hopefully be a way to bring in people who are otherwise uncomfortable visiting or are more vulnerable to COVID-19, said Rachel Eggers, SAM associate director of public relations.

There will be two more mask-required hours — the third Saturdays in June and July — and SAM is open to providing more if there is good turnout. 

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SAM sold 56 presale tickets for Saturday’s mask-required hour, and more than 80% of those tickets were for “Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water,” SAM’s special exhibit about the significance of water, which closes Monday, May 30. 

Jill Sells, a SAM member who brought her daughter to the exhibit Saturday, advocated for more than one hour a month of mask-required time, but thought Saturday was a good start. She still wears her mask in public places, though the mandate has dropped.

“It’s a good protective measure against COVID in general, so I don’t see any reason not to do it for now,” she said. “Certainly now with rates increasing here and across the country, there’s no reason to be exposing people more than we need to.”

Melissa Rothe and her husband took their three boys to the exhibit Saturday, the family’s first museum experience since the pandemic began. When they discovered SAM was having a mask-required hour last Saturday, they grabbed free passes through their King County library cards.

Rothe said that more places that are prone to crowds could benefit from a mask-required hour, and her family would visit any museum that institutes something similar. Her son Ethan, 12, seconded that, saying the mask-required hour makes him feel safer when visiting museums, which he enjoys doing.

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“I just like looking at all the cool stuff that people have built in the past and things that have happened before us,” he said.

Akioka said he thinks one hour a month is enough and is efficient, allowing people to make their own choice about when they want to attend the museum.

Mikhael Mei Williams, SAM’s chief marketing officer, said the museum initially began discussions of a mask-required hour last summer when the local government temporarily rescinded its mask mandate, recognizing that was a deterrent for some visitors.

“Accessibility and inclusivity are important goals for SAM,” Mei Williams said. “This was something that we wanted to do to make sure that we could give as many people as possible access to the museum.”

Chelsea Leingang, SAM’s visitor experience assistant manager, said the museum has had a lot more visitors since King County dropped its mask mandate, and most of them aren’t wearing masks.

“A lot of people are coming in wearing masks, and then they take them off when they ask us if it’s optional,” Leingang said.

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The museum has safety measures in place for staff, like plexiglass at points where they interact with patrons, and most of the staff still chooses to wear masks, including Leingang.

“Absolutely. 100%,” Leingang said. “For my safety and for their safety, and kind of front-line sticking together.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misused pronouns for Chelsea Leingang.

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This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.