Otherworld ready to reopen next week

Joel Oliphint
Jordan Renda, founder and creative director of Otherworld

Otherworld founder Jordan Renda is convinced he and his team can safely operate the popularimmersive art installation in the era of COVID-19, and rather than continue waiting for specific guidelines from the governor, Otherworld is planning to reopen on Thursday, June 11.

Of course, it’s going to be different. Renda and his team had to come up with a new plan for the alien world they created in an abandoned East Side strip mall — an experience that involved touching, button-pushing, crawling through secret tunnels and navigating 40-plus rooms in close quarters.

“The safety aspect is definitely the top concern. We would never consider doing it if we thought we couldn't do it 100 percent safely,” Renda said last week by phone. (In a follow-up email, Renda was also clear to say that Otherworld’s struggles are trivial compared to the issues being voiced by protesters in Columbus and across the country in response to the police killings of black men and women.)

To guarantee social distance, Otherworld will operate at 20 percent capacity, with online-only reservations for available time slots. “At 20 percent capacity, that’s like one person per 160 square feet — pretty much like six people per 1,000. I haven't seen any retail or bars operating at that ratio. … You're not going to be bumping into people. It'll be pretty sparse. We're in a building that's the size of a Kroger,” Renda said. “We're gonna give everybody masks; all the visitors will be provided with one before they walk into the building. And then we're putting sanitizing stations in every single exhibit in the space, so if people feel like they want to press a button or something, they can sanitize immediately before and after.”

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The user experience for visitors, Renda said, will actually be better. “One of the big complaints we had before we ever closed was just how crowded it would get,” he said.

Before Otherworld shut down in mid-March amid the stay-at-home orders, Renda and his team had already experimented with operating at a lower capacity. After closing, around 30 part-time workers and most of the full-time employees at Otherworld lost their jobs, though the organization was able to rehire its 11 full-time staffers on May 1 after receiving funds through the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). “It covers the salaries, which is great, but it only covers a portion of the rest of our expenses. So we're still paying for rent out of pocket,” Renda said.

Since May 1, Otherworld has been in a holding pattern, waiting on guidance from the state and getting mostly silence. “There's a lot of mid-level entertainment and art groups out there that aren't Cedar Fair and don't have shitloads of cash reserves that they can just burn through for a year,” Renda said.

At first, Renda and his team planned to work on the space during the shutdown, but with strict social distancing guidelines in place, they couldn’t be in the same building together. Recently, though, the Otherworld team has been able to upgrade existing spaces and even added a handful of new rooms. In that way, the last few weeks have felt like deja vu — a return to startup mode.

“Once we were able to get the team back in the building, it kind of feels like this time last year, when we were building and getting the place ready to open. It has that same energy now,” he said. “We're all working and we're building this new stuff and excited for people to finally come out and see it. It's a weird parallel to last year, but also a lot of the same struggles, like running out of financing and trying to figure out a way to keep everything moving.”