Children's Museum

Brantley Gullickson, 4, of Bloomer, plays Tuesday in the grocery checkout lane at the Eau Claire Children’s Museum under the supervision of his mother, Tiffany. The museum will close indefinitely Saturday because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

In a year that is no fun for many Americans, play time is about to end even at a place created for children to have fun.

The Children’s Museum of Eau Claire announced Tuesday it will once again close to the public indefinitely at 3 p.m. Saturday.

The museum previously was closed from March 16 through July 6 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael McHorney, CMEC’s executive director, said he is disappointed the museum has to close but indicated the decision is necessary for financial reasons.

“We reopened to serve the community. I don’t know if we would have reopened if the decision was based purely on financial reasons. We knew it would be tough at first, but we didn’t think it would be this bad to be honest,” McHorney said, referring to low attendance since the museum reopened this month with occupancy limits, reservation requirements and a mandatory mask policy for all guests age 6 and older.

Calling attendance “not even close to what we hoped it would be,” McHorney speculated that the number of visitors has been negatively affected by a combination of coronavirus-related factors, including safety concerns about indoor activities, the challenge of getting children to wear face coverings and alternative summertime options for children to experience outdoor play.

During July 2020, CMEC is losing an average of $1,272 per day. At that pace, CMEC would run out of cash to operate around the middle of January 2021. CMEC officials had hoped to operate at about 50% of earned revenue (mostly from admission fees, memberships and birthday parties) compared with 2019, but indicated that in July the facility has earned only 14% of the revenue it took in during the same month last year.

“By making this strategic move immediately, we hope to enter the beginning of 2021 with enough cash on hand to operate at a time when children and grown-ups may need us more than they do now,” McHorney said. “We decided it was prudent to close and preserve our cash so we can get through the long haul.”

Board Chairwoman Char Gurney backed the move, saying the purpose of closing now is to ensure the museum in the future “can continue to offer the positive experience that CMEC visitors have grown to love.”

CMEC plans to reduce operating expenses by 62% to stay afloat. Museum officials hope to retain five salaried employees through participating in the state Department of Workforce Development’s Work Share program. If not approved, CMEC’s board of directors may have to determine additional reductions. The museum started 2020 with seven full-time and seven part-time employees.

“CMEC’s employees are selfless and through this pandemic their selflessness has been on full display,” McHorney said in a news release. “All employees changed their day-to-day roles from what they were to primarily cleaning and disinfecting the museum this last month to allow children to play and be safe.”

When salaried employees were asked, not one of them felt the museum should remain open given its financial difficulties, he said.

“Without being asked, every single one of them offered up their position first, if it came to that, instead of one of their colleagues having to lose their position,” McHorney said.

CMEC officials said their focus is to be good stewards of the assets entrusted to them by the community and to encourage play in different ways, such as through virtual programming, while the building is closed.

By the end of August, the museum reported that information will be provided to patrons with annual memberships on how their membership will be structured moving forward.

“CMEC will be here to serve the community when it is a better environment for social play rather than social distancing,” the museum said in the release, while also encouraging community residents to continue to follow the lead of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department and to wear masks whenever in public to help control the spread of the virus.

The temporary closing is not expected to affect the museum’s ongoing capital campaign to raise money to build a new facility on vacant land directly east of the city’s parking ramp in the North Barstow area.

“That project is still moving forward,” McHorney said. “The break ground date is probably next spring, although that all depends on the situation.”