Tanya Schwamberger said her older son’s eyes got big with excitement when she told him the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota was open again Thursday.

Chase, 4, had asked her when they could go back plenty of times during the last six-plus months. He and younger brother, Sawyer, 2, would often play at the museum before it closed due to COVID-19 in March.

The North Mankato family was the first through the doors when the museum opened Thursday.

They found new exhibits, activities and safety protocols inside. The play-based learning opportunities Schwamberger loves for her boys, though, were still there.

As a parent, she said, it felt great to have the museum back as a safe place for playtime.

“The staff know our kids and we know a lot of the moms and dads who come here,” she said. “We just feel really comfortable and safe here.”

The museum isn’t yet completely back to pre-COVID operations. It’ll be at 25% capacity, a max of 132 people at a time, until Gov. Tim Walz lifts or revises COVID restrictions.

It also lost staff in the months between closing and reopening. Furloughs gave way to permanent layoffs for some, reducing staff numbers from 40 pre-COVID to 22 now.

“It was a sad summer,” said CEO Louise Dickmeyer. “I was the only one here on site and it was just so quiet. You miss having kids here enjoying their play experience.”

The museum welcomes about 100,000 guests annually. The whole museum industry is taking a big hit this year, Dickmeyer said.

“Some will remain closed indefinitely,” she said. “This has always been a really strong regional asset … We know that will continue, and we’re going to work hard to make sure we’re around for the long haul.”

Staff looked forward to Oct. 1 for a while and worked hard to make it happen, she added. They went outside for pictures before welcoming the first guests.

Deb Johnson, senior director of museum experiences and environments, likened it to how children feel on the first day of school.

“It was kind of like that butterfly feeling in your stomach, like the first day of school,” she said. “We all were feeling very excited.”

The museum’s COVID response includes preparedness plans, sanitation stations and mask requirements for people 5 and older. Staff stand by to wipe down surfaces, while an ionizer is used to further disinfect the space.

Hours are limited to start and could be expanded based on demand. For now the museum will be open 9 a.m.-noon Wednesdays, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays.

New seasonal exhibits include “Energy: Powered by Play,” which teaches children about how energy gets generated and brought to homes. There are also new outdoor activities near the farm animals.

Just as the museum has changed since it was last open, the children who use it have grown up a bit during the hiatus. Schwamberger said Sawyer is bigger now and can climb on more stuff now than back then.

Julia Douglas’ son, Griffin, was only about a year old when the museum closed. After barely being able to walk before, he could run around the museum Thursday.

The two were the second group through the door Thursday morning, Douglas said.

“We had it on our calendar for the last three weeks knowing we were going to come today for the grand reopening,” the Mankato mother said.

Griffin quickly found fun to be had at the dairy farming exhibit, especially feeding the stuffed cows. On days with bad weather like Thursday, Douglas said, the museum really comes in handy.

“He was barely walking when we were here last time and now he can run around the place.”