Approaches For Reopening Escape Rooms in a Pandemic

Update: The following sections were added, or added to, a few hours after publication: Masks, Smarter Cancellation Policies, Gameplay Adaptations

As different regions slowly attempt to reopen, I’ve been putting together a collection of guidelines to help escape room owners think through their reopening strategies.

I honestly believe that escape rooms are well positioned as premium entertainment in this pre-vaccine era. Movie theaters, theaters, bowling, skating rinks, amusement parks, bars, and restaurants generally require large crowds to turn a profit. Escape rooms are intimate, small-group entertainment.

If our industry establishes a strong reputation for safety, fun, and low headcounts, I truly believe that we will bounce back faster and reemerge stronger than before.

I have done my very best to approach this apolitically.

My overarching advice to you is to pay attention to your community and its shifting needs as this pandemic continues to evolve. Smart escape room companies will ratchet up or down the intensity of their policies to meet their regional needs, which will likely change over time.

A mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer on a wooden table.

Adhere to Local Laws

Before we dive in, I want to make it clear that I am not a lawyer or epidemiologist. I’m not claiming that I am.

Before opening, consult with your lawyer and insurance provider. Make sure that you’re following whatever regulations your business is subject to.

Whom Are You Protecting?

When thinking about safety in this pre-vaccine era, there are two groups of people that escape room owners must consider:

  • Employees
  • Customers

Many of the measures that we will discuss apply to both. However, employees may face additional challenges and risks that your customers should not encounter.

Communicate Clearly & Confidently

It’s my hypothesis that much of a company’s success in the coming months will stem from the reputation that they build. Word of mouth has always been important, but it will be far more critical in uncertain times.

Communicate your policies concisely and clearly. Reiterate them in multiple places.

Put your safety policies on your:

  • homepage
  • booking pages
  • email confirmations

I’d also call up your customers the day before and remind them of the safety policies.

Additionally, you should advertise your safety policies on social media. However, don’t just put a post on your Facebook page and call it a day.

Well-crafted, confident, and consistent communication makes you look like a well-run, organized, and trustworthy business.

Private Games

Setting aside personal opinions on public/ private ticketing under normal circumstances, escape rooms should be private ticketed events for the foreseeable future. This will allow players to confidently enter a confined gamespace with people that they know, trust, and would likely spend time with or without the escape room.

This will allow escape room companies to limit the potential drama and conflict between players as tensions will undoubtedly be higher.

As far as I’m aware, there are only two countries on Earth where public ticketing is common:

  • China
  • United States of America

According to our own unpublished data (coming this summer), approximately half of the companies in the United States had already embraced private ticketing prior to 2020, and many more voluntarily made the shift in the lead-up to lockdown. I don’t foresee much resistance to this shift.

Masks

I’m not going to belabor this: we’re all familiar with masks. They aren’t comfortable, but wearing one is the best way to protect ourselves from one another.

Escape room companies should have an absolute mandate when it comes to wearing masks.

All employees and all customers must wear a mask while on premises.

Disney is going to mandate masks in their parks. Escape rooms should mandate masks on premises. Tell your customers in advance. Post a sign on the door. No exceptions.

  • No Shirt
  • No Shoes
  • No Mask
  • No Escape Room

“Should escape rooms have a stockpile of disposable masks on-hand for players?”

I’d say that’s a good idea. Honestly, at this point, players should have their own mask situations sorted out if they are going out in public. That said, eliminating the opportunity for conflict is a good call. If someone needs a mask, I’d provide one to them for the game.

Hoods Blindfolds, & Costumes

I wrote an in-depth piece with Dr. Chris White about hoods, blindfolds, masks, and microbes in escape rooms.

That piece goes into a lot of detail. I recommend reading it. Dr. White is a diehard escape room player and an optometrist. He put a lot of effort into sharing his insights with our community.

The short version is that you have two options:

  • Eliminate hoods, blindfolds, and costumes.
  • Be incredibly smart and disciplined about sterilization procedures.

Honestly, under regular circumstances, most escape rooms are better off eliminating this element from their games.

Smarter Cancellation Policies

In the aforementioned piece with Dr. White we wrote:

“You don’t want sick players in your games.

Whether their eyes are pink and oozing or they are coughing up a lung, you don’t want sick people in your games. They are a hazard to you, your employees, their teammates, and subsequent teams in your facility.

Having a cancellation policy that allows sick people a reasonable means of rescheduling can go a long way towards keeping their germs out of your games.”

Blindfold Safety in Escape Rooms

This is incredibly important. You do not want to create a situation where people are choosing between the safety of you, your staff, and your customers, and some money.

Handle cancellations in a way that doesn’t break your business, but remains fair for your players, and safe for everyone. We’ll explore what some of those options look like in a future piece.

Lobby Management

While your game may be an intimate experience, by default, your lobby isn’t one. Smart lobby management will allow you to limit the number of players who are in close contact with one another.

There are a few approaches that can help:

  • Increase time between games and stagger start times.
  • Give teams specific entry times. Don’t let them show up exceptionally early and wait in your lobby.
  • Expedite exit. Keep teams from lingering.

This will also help you meet any lowered capacity requirements that may be legally imposed on your business.

Digital Waivers

Limiting the time that players are in your facility won’t hurt. You can add efficiency by encouraging everyone to digitally read and sign the waivers prior to arriving.

Plenty of companies have been doing this for years.

THE BASEMENT has long had a QR code and URL beside their front door and does not let people in until they have completed their waiver and it is time for their game to begin.

The QR code also simplifies the steps to players completing the waivers on their own devices and avoids extra devices that would need to be cleansed.

Disciplined & Smart Cleaning Practices

Early on in the outbreak, before lockdown, we were seeing a lot of promises of “deep cleaning” between games. While I am certain that plenty of companies were doing their absolute best, the promise sounded like a lie. It felt like sanitation theater.

I know how long it takes to clean my living room and it has far less square footage and way less stuff than your typical escape room.

When it comes to cleaning, all that anyone can ask of you is that you do it intelligently. Clean the things that matter:

  • Microscopes, telescopes, or peepholes – anything that the player holds up to their eyes – need a thorough cleaning with a 70% alcohol, 30% water mixture.
  • Clean any items that players regularly hold up to their faces such as walkie-talkies.

Seriously clean the things that are important and risky.

Don’t make vague promises that you cannot keep. You aren’t bleaching your set between teams and you certainly aren’t sterilizing the sand in your Egyptian tomb game. There are limits to what you’re capable of. It’s ok. You’re human.

A false sense of security for your players is far more dangerous than a realistic understanding of their situation.

Clean Your Bathrooms

In one of our more… colorful… posts, we discussed bathroom cleanliness in great depth.

This matters more now than ever.

Break out the bleach and clean it thoroughly and regularly.

UV Sterilization

While we’re on the subject of sterilization, I know that some in our community are interested in UV sterilization lights as a way of rapidly cleaning games between teams without heavy labor.

I’m going to encourage you to abandon this idea for a few reasons:

  • If these lights work, they are dangerous if turned on while a person is in the game (and they will also fade and damage your set.)
  • These lights are unreliably produced in Chinese factories (like lasers) and frequently don’t do a damn thing. This one was just an LED array; they were party lights:

Pre-Game Handwashing

It’s reasonable to ask your players to wash their hands before the game, either in the bathroom or with hand sanitizer.

Hands being washed in water.

Physical Security

Finally, the thing that I don’t want to talk about.

There have been a few documented incidents of customers assaulting employees who were attempting to enforce safety policies. While I’d like to believe that this will not happen within any escape rooms, it’s best to have plans for prevention and reaction.

  1. Communicate the policies regularly and clearly. Help your players understand the rules before they arrive.
  2. Put your employees behind a barrier in your lobby. This will allow them to have a physical barrier to protect them from an unmasked customer. It will also put something in between them and a customer who is intent on violently expressing their dislike of the rules.
  3. Have backup, especially if you have employees who aren’t physically imposing. Companies that regularly deal with intoxicated players are already familiar with this dynamic.
  4. Make sure that your employees have a firm understanding of how you want them to handle escalation. They shouldn’t have to guess in the moment.

HVAC & Filtration

The EPA has endorsed the following statements by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers:

“Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through the air is sufficiently likely that airborne exposure to the virus should be controlled. Changes to building operations, including the operation of heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems, can reduce airborne exposures.”

“Ventilation and filtration provided by heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems can reduce the airborne concentration of SARS-CoV-2 and thus the risk of transmission through the air. Unconditioned spaces can cause thermal stress to people that may be directly life threatening and that may also lower resistance to infection. In general, disabling of heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems is not a recommended measure to reduce the transmission of the virus” (Source: ASHRAE).

  • Run your air conditioning or heat. Your HVAC can help limit the spread of microbes if it is properly maintained.
  • Make sure that you replace your filters regularly.
  • Consider getting finer filters as they will have better odds of extracting microbes.

Player Perception

If you’d like to explore some escape room industry-specific data, I happen to have some for you:

Vincent Rubino of Fox in a Box – Chicago & Jayson Mamaclay of Fuzzy Logic published a report yesterday that analyzed the survey responses of 548 previous escape room players regarding their perceptions of playing escape rooms post-lockdown.

While this is a snapshot of a particular portion of the market from a specific part of the United States, it adds valuable insights into the conversation by helping us establish a baseline understanding of player perceptions.

We thank Rubino & Mamaclay for sharing this with us and allowing us to publish their findings. Additionally, I want to thank everyone involved with making this happen:

  • Maren Rosenberg of Escape Artistry
  • Jonathan Biag and Dexter Cura of Escape Factor
  • Andrew Sandage of Fuzzy Logic
  • Brian Sommer of CluedIn Escape Rooms
  • Matt Hanson of Challenge Accepted
  • Chris Lukeman of Adventures in Time & Space
  • Carrie Guido of NM Escape Room (who provided the base survey)

It makes me so happy to see escape room owners banding together to gather data, support one another, and share their findings more broadly to support the larger industry.

Gameplay Adaptations

As Darren Miller pointed out in the comments, some gameplay might require modification:

“Pondering that among other things an escape room might consider removing for the duration: smell puzzles and food/taste puzzles. I think that’s a logical extension of “masks required”, but just thought I’d point it out.”

This is an excellent point. Some puzzles simply will not work with a mask or function safely under these circumstances; adapt accordingly.

IAAPA Guidelines

If you feel like diving into the deep end, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) released a 36-page guidance document for site-specific entertainment operations:

COVID-19 Reopening Guidance Considerations for the Global Attractions Industry (May 1, 2020)

There is a lot of interesting information within these pages, much of it along the lines of what we’ve already covered, with more depth… and information about roller-coaster operation that isn’t going to be helpful to you. (Please note, if you have an escape room where the roller-coaster stuff is relevant contact us because we’d like to play that game when we can travel again.)

CDC Guidelines

The CDC has a set of guidelines that are regularly updated. Keep an eye on this space and adapt accordingly.

I’m not going to comment on them, because they have changed more than once while I was writing this piece. Such is the nature of things at the moment.

Closing Thoughts

I know full well that there are many more struggles ahead, and my hope isn’t to solve every single one of them, but to continue a dialog about how to endure and evolve.

If you’re leaving a comment on this post here on the website or on social media, add the hashtag #endure or word “endure” to signal to people that you read the entire piece.

Thank You

Thank you to Richard Burns for being a sounding board for these ideas, contributing his perspectives, and remaining patient while I worked through the nuances.

Thank you to the REA Patreon Supporters for contributing to an outstanding discussion on this subject and pointing me towards many different directions to investigate.

11 thoughts on “Approaches For Reopening Escape Rooms in a Pandemic

  1. Pondering that among other things an escape room might consider removing for the duration: smell puzzles and food/taste puzzles. I think that’s a logical extension of “masks required”, but just thought I’d point it out.

    #endure

  2. Re: Digital Waivers

    There are laws governing ESignatures, so you should definitely seek legal guidance to make sure the Digital Waiver meets the “verifiable criteria”.

    #endure

    1. A large portion of the escape room world is already using digital waivers… I’d hazard a guess that most are.

      If it’s good enough for your insurance company, it must meet some minimum standard.

  3. Another pondering: challenges that require communication across a distance will difficult for players wearing masks. e.g. blind-maze challenges where one player can see the maze directing another player (usually on the other side of a wall).

    :insert muffled shouting: “Hunh? Did you say left??”

  4. #endure
    I chose to add several Hepa filter air purifiers throughout the store to help with the air handling. It not only cleans out virus particles, it is a visible safeguard that customers will notice and appreciate!

  5. Lots of great tips for escape room owners. I agree that there is a risk out there and strongly believe we are in the phase of shared responsibility for COVID transmission. Under the section of Communication it might be helpful for players to see an owners’ statement that reasonable precautions are being taken though we (no one) cannot ensure that players will not be exposed. There could also be a list of things players can do or consider in the interest of safety before booking the room. Players should consider their tolerance for risk and are welcome to bring gloves, limit group sizes and limit members that are at increased risk or are not feeling well.

    Owners can have a non-contact thermometer at the front desk and “scan” players for fever (>100.4 F). A digital readout is less subjective than some other things that players may resist.

    While hot soapy water is better, having hand sanitizer is nice and easy for several people to use at once post room play.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.