It’s Friday, the final day of spring break across Arkansas, the end of the busiest week of the year at the Museum of Discovery. But not in 2020. Today, our museum is dark and quiet, as it has been for the last 13 days. As it will be for who know how many more days, as the world hunkers down in a collective effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.
While I miss seeing the thousands of smiling guests who adore the Museum of Discovery, I miss my co-workers even more. And while “guest satisfaction” is a term every museum employee knows and something we focus on every day, “employee satisfaction” is what I, as CEO of the museum, keep top of mind this and every other day we’re not open, not together.
We’ve had our usual 2 p.m. staff meeting the last two Wednesdays – the first by conference call and this week using Zoom (THERE are those faces I miss!). And today I will share this passage from my comments during our virtual board of directors meeting last week, a passage I shared with our staff a few hours later:
The Museum of Discovery is only as good as our people. They, in fact, ARE the Museum of Discovery. The facility gives them the tools to do their jobs – whether that’s inside or outside our four walls – but it’s all about the people. And they are scared. Understandably so.
From the first time we realized just how serious this was – and that really wasn’t THAT long ago – and that there was at least some remote possibility we’d have to close the museum … we’ve told the staff one thing: You will be paid. And that goes for full-time and part-time employees.
I didn’t anticipate much pushback from our board members about continuing to pay our people. And they were in unanimous agreement to ensure full pay through the May 15 payroll. (These are amazing people, pillars of their community and of their professions. You likely know many of them: https://museumofdiscovery.org/board-of-directors/)
Thanks to money we’ve been able to accumulate over several years of strong attendance and support – as well as paying some operational expenses through 2018 using Donald W. Reynolds Foundation grant funding – we had the necessary cash reserves. Did we ever dream we’d have to use those for payroll? Definitely not. Will eight weeks of payroll exhaust most of our cash reserves. Definitely so.
This money, seemingly safely tucked away, represented our much smaller version of what the state calls its “rainy day fund.” And though the sun shines brightly through our living room windows as I work from home today, this most definitely is a “rainy day.” And this storm isn’t letting up anytime soon.
The request to our board to authorize using reserves for payroll for eight weeks – while we will generate essentially $0 in earned revenue – was based on the current CDC standards: no gatherings of more than 50 people for eight weeks, which would have meant the Museum of Discovery would reopen on Monday, May 11.
More recently, our governor has told us his experts expect the number of COVID-19 cases to be peaking in May or June, so it doesn’t seem reasonable to think we might reopen under those conditions.
My first Zoom meeting was with more than 150 of my fellow members of the Downtown Little Rock Rotary Club 99. Several were featured speakers, including Rep. French Hill, our U.S. congressman. I emailed Rep. Hill just after the meeting and he had Ashley Gunn, his senior advisor on financial matters, call me. Ashley sent me a copy of the legislation that passed the U.S. House today and now goes to the president’s desk for his signature. She told me that $350 billion would be earmarked for small businesses – including 501c3 nonprofits like the Museum of Discovery. This money will be disbursed through the Small Business Administration. It’s a loan program, but for recipients who use the money for payroll (and a few other permissible expenses), the loan amount will be forgiven.
The program allows loans up to 2.5 times an organization’s monthly payroll, so if all goes as we hope it does and we are approved for that forgivable loan, between the board-approved money and the SBA money, I now have clear line of sight to paying all Museum of Discovery employees through our August 7 payroll.
What will our world, our country, our state and our city look like on August 7? Will it still be a “rainy day”? Obviously, it’s way too early to know. But I do know the longer we can keep our people employed – which is EXACTLY what leaders at every level are asking businesses to do, if they can – the longer they will be on our team, ready to leap into action when the time is right.
What I told our board, what I told our staff, what I’m telling you really rings true for every business in the world: Our people ARE our businesses. Without our employees, the Museum is a dark, empty building, like it is today. Like it will be tomorrow. But someday we again will be bright, light and full of happy, smiling families, and I can again begin balancing “guest satisfaction” and “employee satisfaction.”
Kelley Bass is the CEO of the Museum of Discovery.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in op-eds are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Arkansas Money & Politics or About You Media Group.