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Special new entry gates at the Space Needle in Seattle use Far-UV-C light to “sanitize” guests as they enter the landmark following a four-month closure for the pandemic. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The bar for reopening businesses and attractions to the public during the coronavirus pandemic has been set — and it’s 600 feet high.

Seattle’s iconic Space Needle has invested $1 million in state-of-the-art technologies and safety measures that officials say will allow visitors to soon return to the structure, which has been closed since March 13 because of the health crisis. The initiative, called “Elevating Clean,” viewed first-hand by GeekWire this week, goes far beyond ordinary face masks and hand sanitizer.

The Space Needle has added an array of ultraviolet light technology intended to rid the air and surfaces of harmful viruses. Guests will pass through Far-UV-C “sanitizing” body scanners at the front gates that look like airport metal detectors. Inside, they’ll breathe air that’s been zapped by even stronger UV-C light inside the building’s mechanical systems.

CEO Ron Sevart and COO Karen Olson weren’t ready to give an exact date for reopening, but they realize the Needle — with its giant “Mask Up” flag flapping at the top — plays an integral role in the community.

“We’re the best place to show off the city. We want to do that safely,” Olson said. “It’s been four months. People want something to do, they want something to do safely, they want to get that breath of fresh air. We’ve taken the time, we’ve done the investment. We believe we are as safe as we can be.”

Downtown Seattle and Mount Rainier as viewed from the top observation deck of the Space Needle on Tuesday. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

While the Needle has been working with King County and Washington state on its reopening plan, the desire to get back to business comes at a time when COVID-19 cases are rising across the state. On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee extended his pause on reopening Washington counties until July 28.

Like many businesses hit by the economic realities of the pandemic, the Space Needle’s revenue went to zero and a large number of employees lost their jobs. On the heels of a major renovation of the structure’s top house, Olson said the Needle’s new investment in cleaning tech has attracted other companies in the area looking toward what steps they might need to take.

The Needle’s use of UV light to disinfect air and surfaces comes during a resurgence in interest and implementation of the technology, which has been shown to effectively inactivate airborne microbes. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says it’ll probably kill coronavirus. And Amazon has previously shown off a robot armed with banks of UV lights rolling down a grocery store aisle.

(Space Needle Graphic)

Shortly after closing in March, Needle officials identified the need to establish a “Tech Clean Dream Team” with a focus on cleaner air, cleaner surfaces and touchless experiences. They purchased three of the only portable UV-C units they could find in North America, at a cost of $35,000 each.

“We were going to over-solve the problem,” Sevart said. “And I think we’ve got a process in place that is going to make the Space Needle one of the safest places to be in Seattle.”

On a beautiful summer day, the Space Needle would typically welcome as many as 10,000 visitors to gawk at the one-of-a-kind views from high above the city.

After reopening, officials figure that lingering safety fears among the public and efforts to limit capacity will cut the number of visitors in half.

Visitors will be encouraged to buy tickets online before arriving and timed ticketing will be used to control crowds. Touchless, self-checkout-style experiences are promoted throughout and cash won’t be accepted anywhere — but there is a kiosk that will dispense debit-style cards for purchases.

All employees will be wearing company-issued masks and guests must have a mask to enter. The Needle ordered 250,000 surgical-style masks with a Seattle theme printed on them which it will provide for guests who need one.

A masked employee behind a Space Needle security line kiosk. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Employees in the security line and in the retail shop will work behind a plexiglass barrier. Signage and sanitizer is everywhere, as are those dots and arrows on the floor that have become ubiquitous in other locations such as grocery stores, to promote six feet of social distancing.

In the line to wait for the elevator to the top, there is still an opportunity to get a free photo taken with a green-screened Seattle backdrop added in. Guests are encouraged to download the Needle app so that the photo can be sent directly to a smartphone. Behind masks, it’s a little tough to tell if anyone is smiling.

Inside the elevators, which travel up the exterior of the building, outside air is treated and expelled back out — and promoted in a window sticker as “100% fresh air.” More Far-UV-C lights have been installed in the ceiling of each cab to shine on occupants. Capacity will be reduced from 25 riders to about 10 and an employee does all button pushing. There is also no talking allowed on the 41-second ride, to cut down on any particle discharge.

A sign on a Space Needle elevator promotes the fact that all air in the cabs comes from outside. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Zach McCue has been an elevator operator at the Space Needle for eight years. We asked him how he likes his job now, in a confined space with strangers who could potentially be carrying a deadly virus.

“I can’t imagine what else they could possibly do to make this more safe, more secure at this point,” McCue said as we raced skyward. A recording during the ride welcomed visitors to the “world famous Space Needle” and reminded them that under under Washington state law, they are required to keep a mask on and maintain a safe social distance at the top.

Outside the elevators on the observation deck, Olson picked up an electrostatic disinfectant sprayer made by a company called Evaclean. The futuristic device looked like it could have been lifted from one of the sci-fi displays in the Museum of Pop Culture at the base of the Needle. It’s used to clean elevator cabs and other surfaces.

Space Needle COO Karen Olson holds an electrostatic disinfectant sprayer for cleaning elevator surfaces and more. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Space Needle CEO Ron Sevart shows off a portable UV-C light machine which is used to clean bathrooms and other areas after hours. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

A portable UV-C unit on wheels was also nearby. The devices emit light that is more harmful to humans and are intended to be used in closed spaces, such as bathrooms, after hours.

A giant screen called SkyPad, which features thousands of pictures of the Needle and visitors, and usually requires touch activation, has been changed to an automatic media display.

With Pearl Jam’s grunge-classic “Even Flow” blaring on speakers and doors open to a warm, blue-sky day, it was clear why anyone would want to get away from reality and back up to the top of Seattle’s most famous building. The air just seemed cleaner, with nice views this week of the skyline, Elliott Bay and Mount Rainier.

Sevart said he’s seen fewer planes flying by and the streets below, including the notoriously crowded Mercer Street running though the South Lake Union tech hub, are noticeably less congested with more people working remotely.

In the fresh air of the observation deck, I snapped a couple selfies with my mask on, like visitors are sure to do if things go according to plan.

“We want people to take a break, get above it all,” Olson said.

Keep scrolling for more photos:

Entry times for specific tickets will be displayed on screens at the base of the Space Needle. (GeekWire Photos / Kurt Schlosser)
Signage on the ground promotes social distancing in lines and elsewhere.
Visitors scan a ticket or phone to pass through new touchless entry gates.
Valet parking is unlikely to return to the Needle anytime soon because it’s too much work to sanitize each guest’s car.
The retail shop at the base of the Needle is promoting self checkout and bagging.
Hand sanitizer and protective gear is sold alongside the usual Space Needle memorabilia.
Space Needle elevator operator Zach McCue.
A giant display screen on the observation for viewing images is no longer touch-activated.
Are they smiling behind the masks? GeekWire’s Kurt Schlosser joins Space Needle COO Karen Olson and CEO Ron Sevart for the free green-screened image as part of a tour.
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