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WATCH NOW: Head of Old Salem and MESDA talks about the museum’s closing, finances, reopening and more, a year into COVID

Old Salem Museums & Gardens and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts was one of the first organizations to close in Winston-Salem around the time COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in mid-March 2020.

Gov. Roy Cooper issued a stay-at-home order for North Carolina on March 27, 2020.

“We closed on Friday the 13th (March 2020),” said Frank Vagnone, president and chief executive of Old Salem and MESDA.

But the anticipation for the shutdown started three weeks earlier in February 2020 when Vagnone and the museum’s 21-person leadership team talked about plans for a closure.

“We weren’t sure, but we had a lot planned if that was going to happen,” he said.

Vagnone recently reflected on Old Salem’s closing, finances, future and eventual reopening, a year into the coronavirus pandemic.

On a day, just prior to the museum’s closing, nearly 900 school children had visited Old Salem.

“I was walking around the district and very quickly realized that was not going to work,” Vagnone said.

He said he knew the hand-sanitizer stations in all Old Salem’s historic venues were not going to be enough and that something had to be done for the safety of the museum’s staff and its visitors.

“If you were walking the district and saw that many people in and out of our historic venues, you just knew that it was unsafe,” Vagnone said.

Hayes Wauford, chairman of the board of directors of Old Salem Museums & Gardens and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, said that the leadership team and board of directors of Old Salem and MESDA responded quickly to COVID-19.

“After closing on March 13th, 2020, the organization turned to the community and asked what needs were present. It was at this time we transformed all of our gardens into produce production for local foods banks and our bakery started crafting bread for local families in need,” Wauford said.

“We were able to navigate 2020 by controlling our operating costs while still facilitating these community engagements. The museums greatly expanded online offerings and these have raised awareness of Old Salem and MESDA at the national and international levels.”

Vagnone said changes made the last four years at Old Salem have put the museum in a better position to manage the COVID crisis.

Organizations that have survived the past year should “think about what they will be when they grow up after the COVID pandemic,” Vagnone said.

“This has really given us a great period of pause,” he said of Old Salem and MESDA. “We have a 21-person leadership team, which has been meeting nonstop every week, most of the time twice a week, doing analysis and review of not only the COVID crisis but also deeply reflecting on our operations, what Old Salem has been in the past (and) what we’d like Old Salem to be in the future.”

Vagnone personally believes that it is a time of pivot for all nonprofit and cultural organizations, especially given recent social justice issues, the 2020 election, the expansion of education and narratives, and current worldwide financial conditions.

Finances and staff

The pandemic has dramatically affected Old Salem and MESDA’s finances, but it has been able to stay afloat for several reasons, including the work done at the museum the past four years and getting a Paycheck Protection Program loan.

After Old Salem and MESDA closed last March, Vagnone said he asked for a worst-case scenario budget, which determined that the museum’s deficit at the end of 2020 would possibly range from $3.2 million and $4 million.

“Old Salem and MESDA has a line of credit, which we use as a way of keeping our cash flow even throughout the year,” Vagnone said during a February question and answer session on YouTube. “That combined with what we already had in the line of credit would exceed the line of credit.”

As a result, he said, management knew that long-term operations could not sustain a $4 million deficit.

After conversations with Old Salem/MESDA’s 21-member leadership team it was decided that the museum would accept some level of deficit so that, for example, it could call back its bakers and horticulture team to be able to provide food for the local food banks.

Old Salem has been continuously baking bread for local families in need for the past year. It transformed all of its demonstration educational gardens into vegetable gardens.

“It’s over 13,000 loaves of bread and then over 3 tons of vegetables for the food banks, and we’re going to continue that as part of our operations certainly through this year,” Vagnone said.

He said the organization’s leaders feel secure going forward that the size of the museum will not exceed the money they have to run it.

“That’s been a really conscious effort throughout COVID and it’s conscious for this year,” he said. “We can’t get too big too quickly or else it will balloon a deficit. We have to do it gradually as people return.”

Prior to COVID, Old Salem and MESDA had 137 employees. Now, through several stages of layoffs, it has 68 staff members — 41 work full time and 27 are part-time employees. There are 19 additional people on furlough.

“They’re part-time employees that we use when we need them for educational purposes,” Vagnone said of those furloughed.

Vagnone said the leadership staff is talking about the size of the museum’s staff and an analysis of what that will mean in regard to long-term financial stability when it reopens.

“Things have changed so much about our operations that all of our positions when we hire back will have new job descriptions and everything,” he said.

He suspects it will be a year and a half before museum officials start hiring back a large group of people.

“It will be like the normal hiring process at that point,” he said.

Changes are also likely to occur in retail.

“We’re really reconsidering how retail is infused within the visitor experience,” Vagnone said. “We know we want to do it. We just want to do it in a really gradual way.”

When Old Salem closed last year, it promptly opened an online store.

“It’s doing very strongly,” Vagnone said. “You can buy Winkler treats there.”

Online, tavern and reopening

Vagnone is pleased that Old Salem and MESDA has been able to expand its network of people who know about the museum through various social media platforms, including TikTok and Facebook Live, as well as its videos, digital programs and lecture series.

“It’s been phenomenally successful for Old Salem, and I absolutely believe that it will have an effect on visitation when we do open back up, because people are saying they never knew about Old Salem and now they want to come and visit,” he said.

Vagnone offers “President Frank’s Updates” at www.oldsalem.org and recently started “Ask Me Anything” Live Q&A’s on YouTube.

Even before the pandemic, people were curious as to what will happen to the tavern space in Old Salem.

Vagnone said the building has a lot of problems that need to be addressed, including the heating, ventilation and air conditioning; lighting, plumbing; the roof; and improvements in accessibility for people with disabilities.

Old Salem is in discussions with Muddy Creek Café, which was chosen through the request for proposals process, about a second location in Old Salem in the tavern space. Muddy Creek Café already has a smaller café in Old Salem.

As far as when Old Salem and MESDA will reopen, Vagnone said that isn’t a simple question to answer.

He said the museum is looking at a step return.

“We’re remaining really flexible,” Vagnone said. “We’re looking at our data-driven analysis to help us decide how and when we reopen. We know we want to reopen in a gradual way. The question is how gradually and in what specific ways will we reopen?”

He believes some people will be hesitant to return right away.

“We tend to think that the holidays are going to be a real strong thing for us,” Vagnone said. “We’re talking about October, November, December as being a real ramping up period, but a lot of it is conjecture right now.”

Wauford said Old Salem and MESDA officials are taking the same approach with reopening as they did with closing.

“With a desire to return to a meaningful visitor experience, the leadership team remains active and thoughtful as we move toward reopening,” Wauford said. “We eagerly anticipate the new Salem Pathways Programming beginning April 1st and the Winkler Bakery reopening May 1st. We look forward to school groups returning to the historic district and a full schedule of public programming for 2021 including the strongly attended “Salem Saturdays.”

Salem Pathways is an online choose-your-own-adventure experience where visitors can follow the personal lives, achievements and challenges of real-life individuals who lived in or visited Salem from the 1770s to 1980s.

Museums are now allowed to open at 100% capacity in North Carolina.

But Vagnone said, “Just because we can operate at full capacity doesn’t fulfill our need to bring back the 45,000 school kids that make up the backbone of our earned revenue.”

School groups make up 60% of Old Salem and MESDA’s overall attendance and from 70% to 78% of the organization’s earned revenue.

“Until the student groups can come back to Old Salem, it makes it really impossible for us to open up in a pre-COVID way and not accrue just enormous deficits,” Vagnone said.


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Doctor who challenged state rules in court closes practice

From the street, the desk that Dr. Gajendra Singh was trying to squeeze through the front door to his office Friday morning looked as if it would be too large to fit.

But with a little help, some finesse and turning it to just the right angle, it slid through with no scraped knuckles or pinched fingers — a fitting metaphor for the high-stakes, David v. Goliath lawsuit he filed against the state.

Singh, a surgeon and the owner of Forsyth Imaging and Forsyth Surgical Associates, sued the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the North Carolina Health Association — just for the right to buy his own MRI machine.

So what’s the deal? Big picture, the suit represented an attack on an arcane state-run system that knee-caps open markets for health care that promoted monopolies by big hospitals.

Naturally, Singh made enemies. And that played a role in his decision to close his practice — and the need to move that giant desk.

“The lawsuit ended when the imaging center closed,” Singh said. “It was disappointing. But it’s hard to fight big corporations.”

A different way

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Singh’s business practices caused ripples in the health-care pond nearly as soon as he posted his prices for an array of surgeries and tests he offered on a large banner right out in front of his office.

$199 for an ultrasound … $400-$600 for a CT scan … $70 for an x-ray.

Knowing up front the price of a service; what an interesting concept.

The problem, put as simply as possible, was that due to certificate of need law, Singh was not allowed to buy certain medical equipment such as an MRI machine without demonstrating annually that there is a need in a particular geographic area.

The working theory, 40-plus years ago when the CON law passed, was that it would spread out availability of medical services, prevent overlap in densely populated urban areas.

In practice, particularly in recent years as technology improved and became more affordable, that meant big hospital systems could squeeze out smaller competitors and charge more without fear of competition — or even telling patients up front what it might cost.

Still, Singh loaded up his slingshot and tried operating his practice in accordance with the principles of the free market.

Beginning when he opened his practice in 2017, he openly advertised his services and what they would cost. He could repair, say, a hernia for $2,500 instead of $25,000. “No hidden fees. No facility charges. No second charges,” he said proudly.

Naturally cost-conscious patients began finding him and would drive from hours away. To regular folk — people not beholden to insurance companies or with a vested interest in giant health care — it seemed simple.

“If you can make a better pizza for less and want to open a pizza shop down the street from another one, you can,” Singh told me in late fall 2019. “This is about competition. But because this is health care, you can’t.

“It doesn’t make any sense.”

Take some time

Once ensconced, Singh took the next logical step: With the backing of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest think tank near D.C., he filed in July 2018 that suit challenging the constitutionality of the CON law.

To the doctor’s way of thinking — an extension of the pizza comparison — the certificate of need is like having the state require mom-and-pop restaurants to get an expensive license and prove that there are enough hungry people willing to buy their $10 pie with twice the pepperoni before being allowed to compete with the big chains.

The first move by lawyers representing the state was to try and get the suit tossed before it began. But in fall 2018, a judge in Wake County ruled that the suit had merit and could proceed.

“This decision clears the way to litigate the question at the heart of this case: Can the state ban Dr. Singh from providing low-cost MRI services for patients who can least afford them just to protect established providers from competition,” said Josh Windham, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, after the ruling.

The victory was short-lived, though.

A number of factors piled up. Singh still had to fight against large providers. Filing claims with insurance companies is thorny for any medical practice, too. COVID-19 put a hurting on many health-care providers as fear of the virus kept patients at home.

So Singh made last year a difficult decision to close the surgical end of his practice. Earlier this year, he followed by shutting the imaging center.

And with that, the lawsuit ended. No plaintiff and no monetary damage meant no case.

Other than spending more time with his children, who were helping move office furniture while on spring break Friday, he’s not sure of his next move.

He could, in theory, sign on with a large health-care system. If-you-can’t-beat’em-join’em doesn’t seem his style, though. Or he could move elsewhere and try again.

“It was just a personal decision,” he said Friday after getting that desk onto the sidewalk. “I’ll just take some time to figure it out. It was disappointing for sure.”


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