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An annual tradition in Jefferson City is getting ready to return with extra precautions.

Tours of the Missouri State Penitentiary start the first weekend in March.

The tour season has been cut short the past two seasons because of tornado damage and the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The 2019 and 2020 seasons have both taken a toll on the attendance rates due to flooding, tornado damage and now a pandemic," said Alexandra Bobbitt, communications/film manager for the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The 2018 season was a stellar year, attracting 33,000 visitors.

"The 2019 season took a nosedive to 17,000. The 2020 season plummeted down to 13,000 visitors. We are down 61 percent in visitation compared to our best year."

However, she said, the organization is hopeful this season will be different because of the pent-up desire to travel and Jefferson City's location within the state.

"With health and safety protocols in place, our goal is to encourage potential visitors to book their tour with confidence," Bobbitt said. "We are trying to negotiate with Mother Nature this year to allow us to get back on our feet again."

As part of COVID-19 precautions, the tours will have a limited capacity, she said, as well as the number of people allowed in the gift shop and museum at a time. The gift shop will be limited to five visitors, and the museum will be limited to 10.

Additionally, staff has set up hand sanitizer stations throughout the property for tour guides and guests to use as needed.

"Social distancing is recommended between households and can easily be done outside," Bobbitt said. "However, guests and staff members are highly encouraged to wear face coverings while inside the buildings.

"Of course, if anyone has been exposed to COVID-19 and are experiencing related symptoms, we ask they reschedule their tour for a later date."

The old penitentiary offers history, paranormal and photography tours that range from two hours to overnight.

History tours focus on events that happened at the penitentiary, such as escape attempts and riots. It also discusses the history of penal eras in the United States and the prison reform movement.

On the paranormal tours, visitors learn about the history of the prison through some of the reported unexplained occurrences within the buildings while visiting some of the oldest buildings, dungeon cells and the gas chamber.

The photography tours allow visitors to document various areas of the facility, including the cells, mess hall, outside areas and death row.

"Many of the MSP tour staff worked at the prison in some capacity prior to its decommissioning in 2004," Bobbitt said. "Roles ranged from a former warden to guards and to maintenance staff. Their personal experience with the penitentiary provides a unique insight to life inside 'The Walls.'"

Tickets start at $20 but vary based on the tour. They can be purchased at missouripentours.com. Guests are encouraged to purchase tickets in advance and print and sign their tour waiver to reduce contact at check in.

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