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Alcatraz to reopen after being closed for a year

People walk through the main cell house on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, Monday, March 15, 2021. The historic island prison was reopened to visitors Monday after being closed since December because of the coronavirus threat. Visitors were also able to tour the inside of the main cell house for the first time in a year.

ERIC RISBERG/AP

By PAUL ROGERS | The Mercury News | Published: March 18, 2021

Al Capone knew it. Machine Gun Kelly knew it. During its heyday as America’s toughest prison from 1934 to 1963, escaping from Alcatraz was all but impossible. But for the past year, it’s been nearly as difficult to get inside.

All that will change on Monday, when national parks officials plan to reopen the famed former federal penitentiary — now one of Northern California’s leading tourist attractions — in the middle of San Francisco Bay to the public again for indoor tours. The move is the latest example of society slowly reopening as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to fall steadily in California and other states.

“It is my pleasure to begin welcoming visitors back,” said Laura Joss, general superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which oversees the landmark. “We expect everyone to follow CDC guidance, wear a mask and give each other space to safely enjoy their experience.”

In peak summer months during past years, Alcatraz often attracted 5,000 to 6,000 visitors a day. Tourists from all over the world boarded ferry boats to the island site, taking tours in the former cellblock where they wore headphones to listen to recordings of former guards and prisoners describe what life was like on “The Rock.”

But after the COVID-19 pandemic began, access to the prison and Alcatraz Island was closed for health reasons on March 14, 2020. The National Park Service restarted outdoor-only tours to the island five months later, in August, but then was forced to close them again on Dec. 6 when COVID-19 cases spiked statewide during the winter surge.

“I was there the day we reopened in August,” said Charles Strickfaden, a spokesman for the National Park Service. “The public was really excited to be back. But people were disappointed they couldn’t go into the cellblock. We are delighted now to welcome visitors back.”

The reopening was allowed after San Francisco moved into the state’s red tier, which allows for museums to reopen at no more than 25% capacity, late last month. For now, visitors will be limited to 900 a day Friday through Monday and 600 a day on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The cell block tours, gift shop, theater and other indoor attractions at Alcatraz will reopen Monday. Visitors indoors will be required to wear masks. Outdoor attractions on the island also will be open, including Eagle Plaza, Sally Port, the recreation yard and historic gardens, although the Agave Trail is closed due to sensitive bird nesting. The New Industries building also will be open, showcasing an exhibit recognizing the 50th anniversary of the island’s occupation by Native American civil rights activists.

Alcatraz Cruises, the private company that ferries visitors from Pier 33 in San Francisco to Alcatraz Island, will offer six trips a day, Friday through Monday, on the hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with the last boat returning at 5:40 p.m. There will be four tours Tuesday through Thursday, hourly from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Cost for the round-trip ride and park admission is $41 for adults, $25 for kids younger than 12, $38.65 for seniors 62 and older, and free for kids 4 and under.

Although the windswept island is known for its history as a military prison in the 1800s, then America’s most famous end point for bank robbers, murderers and mob bosses in the mid-20th century, it also has considerable natural features.

The island — named “La Isla de los Alcatraces” (The Island of the Pelicans) by Spanish explorer Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, is home to tide pools, cliffs and a variety of wildlife, including cormorants, gulls and harbor seals. Peregrine falcons nest on the island and have hatched chicks there.

Another key landmark of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Fort Point, a Civil War-era fort at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge also will reopen Monday. With those reopenings, nearly all parts of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which received 19 million visitors in 2019, will be open to visitors again. Only a few features are still closed, including Point Bonita Lighthouse in Marin County, the Cliff House restaurant in San Francisco, and several visitors centers.

People tour the main cell house on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, Monday, March 15, 2021.
ERIC RISBERG/AP