ORLANDO, Fla., June 9 (UPI) -- With approval from NASA, Kennedy Space Center's visitor attraction has resumed operations with limited hours and a cap on visitors following months of being closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The space center's visitor complex, which its operators say attracts more than 1.5 million visitors a year, is allowing only 25 percent of its total capacity for now, said Howard Schwartz, senior director of marketing and sales. Schwartz declined to provide details about capacity.
"We're trying to make sure we abide by guidelines set by the state and national health organizations, and that we are actually being even more cautious," Schwartz said this week. "We analyzed the traffic flow we normally get, and square footage, and settled on 25 percent for now."
Tickets cost just over half of their prepandemic price: $29.99 plus tax for adults, compared to $57 previously. That's because many attractions are not available yet, including the Astronaut Training Experience that opened in 2018.
Bus tours that normally would take visitors to view launch pads, the massive Vehicle Assembly Building and the standalone Apollo/Saturn V Center still are on hold. Astronaut appearances -- a popular event at the complex for decades -- are are unavailable right now.
But visitors can see the retired space shuttle Atlantis, a collection of rockets in the so-called Rocket Garden, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and the Journey to Mars multimedia exhibit that highlights rovers and potential trips to the Red Planet in the future.
During normal times, the visitor complex arranges special tickets for launch viewing, allowing guests who pay a premium access within a few miles of the pad. For now, however, launch viewing is allowed only inside the visitor complex, which is 10 miles from most launch pads.
Launch viewing from the complex is permitted only from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. EDT. If a launch is scheduled outside those times, visitors will have to find another vantage point at parks or beaches or on the side of the road.
Officials will evaluate additional crowd capacity and hours as time passes, but no definite schedule has been set yet, Schwartz said.
In a bid to boost attendance, the complex is offering a free ticket to return in 2021 when officials hope all attractions will have reopened.
Masks are required for all visitors and employees -- except when eating -- and staff has been trained to approach anyone not wearing a mask, Schwartz said.
So far, the complex has reported few problems other than people inadvertently getting too close or leaving their mask off.
Like many other businesses and Florida's major theme parks, social distancing is required at the complex. Signs are posted on the floors to remind visitors to stay six feet apart.
For concessions, complex managers encourage touch-free transactions with credit cards and no required signature. Hand sanitizer stations provided in numerous locations, and the staff cleans and sanitizes common spaces frequently, according to the complex's reopening plan.
Visitor center staff, who work for concessionaire Delaware North, based in Buffalo, N.Y., were furloughed during the shutdown. The center recalled 100 employees for opening day, May 28, and will recall more as needed, Schwartz said. He declined to provide a total employment number.
The Kennedy Space Center visitor complex is one of the largest attractions in central Florida -- the world's most popular tourist destination at over 70 million visitors per year in recent years.
Local officials are helping to spread the word that the attraction has reopened, said Pete Cranis, executive director of the region's Space Coast Office of Tourism.
"The visitor complex is a big driver of tourism here," Cranis said. "People from all over the world come and want to see rockets and NASA history, along with launches."
He said the May 30 launch of astronauts to the International Space Station on a SpaceX rocket brought up to 200,000 people to the area, some of whom bought tickets for the complex.
The tourism office will roll out a new campaign Monday to raise awareness about reopening. It's called "Space Coast: We have space for you."
NASA has 10 major field centers, including the space center. All of them welcome visitors in some capacity.
Other large visitor centers include Space Center Houston, adjacent to NASA's Johnson Space Center, which plans to reopen June 28 to limited members and to the public July 1 with restrictions.
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. -- next to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center -- reopened to the public with restrictions May 30.
Astronauts return to space from U.S. soil
Newly arrived NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, front row from left to right, pose for a photo with the rest of the crew aboard the International Space Station on May 31. On the back row, from left to right are Roscosmos flight engineer Anatoly Ivanishin, NASA Commander Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos engineer Ivan Vagner. Photo courtesy of NASA