The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for a lot of businesses, but those built on the concept of large groups gathering closely together indoors have been hit particularly hard. Most high-capacity venues, from stadiums and arenas to gyms and restaurants, were forced to close their doors at the beginning of the pandemic and are now looking for ways to safely reopen.

The Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, Florida, the largest performing arts center in the Southeast, is no exception.

The first step in their reopening strategy was to put together a strong leadership team, including Chief Operating Officer Lorrin Shepard, Director of Operations C.J. Marshall, Senior Director of Facilities Tom Wright, HVAC plant operator Kerlos Adib, electrician Jamie Gonzalez and consultants at TLC Engineering. Together, they developed a comprehensive plan that incorporated air-cleaning technology, ultimately turning to the industry leader in indoor air quality (IAQ) to help bring guests, staff and performers safely back into the theater.

For Businesses Built on Indoor Gatherings, the Pandemic Presented a Steep Challenge

Wright has overseen maintenance at the 400,000-square-foot Straz Center and Patel Conservatory for 14 years. But for Wright, like the rest of us, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted his focus and priorities almost overnight.

“Everything at Straz stopped when COVID hit,” he said. “One day we were preparing for a Broadway show, and the next day all performances were canceled. We sent almost every employee home. The building was empty for the first several months of the pandemic except for myself, a few of my crew and security.”

Wright stayed on because he had a critical job. First and foremost, he needed to maintain the facility during the shutdown. No one knew when employees would return to work or when guests and performers would be welcomed back, but everyone wanted to be prepared.

“A lot of businesses literally closed their doors and shut down entirely during the pandemic,” Wright said. “I couldn’t do that. What would we come back to — mold, mildew? We kept the air conditioning running and continued our daily inspections of all the spaces and major systems so when we could start bringing folks back, the center was in good shape.”

They also put key COVID-19 mitigation measures into place immediately at the start of the pandemic:

  • Increased HVAC filtration: All filters upgraded to MERV-13

  • Improved surface sanitization: Spaces disinfected regularly

  • Increased ventilation: Optimized the outside air control system

While all important and beneficial steps, the team knew they needed to do more.

A Proactive Approach to Cleaner Air

The pandemic changed how we think about clean indoor air, and Wright prioritized finding the best IAQ solution.

“Pathogen control was our number one concern,” he said. “Our engineering consultants, TLC Engineering Solutions, recommended GPS and its needlepoint bipolar ionization (NPBI®) technology. We agreed NPBI was the safest, most effective and sustainable option.

“We’re constantly sanitizing surfaces and washing our hands or using hand sanitizer, and we thought, what about the air? How can we actually clean the air?”

NPBI is an innovative technology that works with existing HVAC systems to actively and effectively clean the air by releasing ions into a building’s airstream. Ions attach to particles in the air, forming clusters that can be more easily filtered out via the HVAC system. This process (called agglomeration) helps control the volume of airborne particles, including bacteria, mold, dust and pollen.

But NPBI is proven effective against pathogens too.

NPBI technology actively and effectively controls pathogens in two key ways:

  • Ions attach to pathogens, such as SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), forming clusters that are then more easily and consistently filtered out of the air. The fewer viruses there are in the air, the lower the likelihood of transmission.

  • The ionization process also changes the outer surface of viruses, rendering them inactive and unable to replicate. The less active a virus is in the air, the less likely it is that it will spread and cause infection.

Wright also appreciates the real-time, quantitative data NPBI provides.

“We can take a meter to the HVAC unit or in the space and measure airborne ion levels whenever we want. It’s invaluable to have access to that type of data to show that the technology is working and actively cleaning the air.”

A Tailored IAQ Solution

Clean indoor air solutions are not one-size-fits-all. Product selections depend on several factors:

  • The size of the space (how much air needs to be cleaned in different areas)

  • The building layout (considering how air flows to all areas, including the nooks and crannies)

  • The ionization capacity of each GPS product (how many ions each product generates)

In September 2020, GPS partnered with TLC Engineering to complete a comprehensive field study and determine the right ionization products for the 400,000-square-foot Straz Center.

Impressed with the installation process, Wright added, “The GPS team was very helpful throughout the process. They, along with TLC Engineering, did an excellent job in choosing the right equipment for our facility and ensuring the installation was simple and quick for our installation companies, Spectrum Mechanical and Trinity Air, and our controls company, Control Systems Specialists, Inc. (CSSI).”

Clean Indoor Air: One Piece of a Comprehensive Reopening Strategy

Wright acknowledged that up until now, they’ve had to take baby steps toward reopening the Straz Center. They started with virtual summer school classes in 2020 and have also hosted some outdoor performances and a few smaller events inside.

But with NPBI now in place, Wright is looking toward the start of the 2021–2022 Broadway season this October, and he and his colleagues are working hard to develop a comprehensive reopening strategy.

Some COVID-19 mitigation measures have already been decided:

  • Health screenings with temperature checks, masks and six-foot social distancing will be required.

  • Hand sanitizing stations are available throughout the facility.

  • No physical performance programs will be distributed.

  • Touchless entry with e-tickets is strongly encouraged.

  • Tables must remain a minimum of six feet apart.

But Wright recognizes there are other concerns they still need to think through.

“How do we get people in and out of the building? At what percent capacity do we open? How do we enforce social distancing and keep people from congregating in the lobby once they’re inside?”

Fortunately, Wright knows they have NPBI technology on their side to provide added peace of mind when the time comes to reopen.

“Our staff already feels more comfortable knowing we have NPBI technology in the building, and we will let guests know about it too. I think it’ll go a long way to make everyone feel safer and more comfortable to enjoy the show.”

Looking Ahead

Wright said that the Straz team was proactive from the start of the pandemic, putting mitigation measures into place immediately and ensuring that the Straz Center was always well maintained, even during shutdown. But they took it one step further and identified a proactive air-cleaning technology that makes him hopeful for the future.

"We’ve announced a full slate of touring Broadway shows that are scheduled to arrive at the Straz Center beginning in mid-October. We are still working out what that will look like, but having NPBI in place now makes me feel much more prepared and optimistic that we’ll be ready.”

Learn more about NPBI technology and how other businesses have used it to help them reopen safely.