San Diego Zoo Reopens as Sanctuary for Cooped-Up Families

Masked parents and toddlers view the flamingos at the San Diego Zoo at its reopening day preview June 19, 2020. (Courthouse News photo / Bianca Bruno)

SAN DIEGO (CN) — Following the first extended closure in its 103-year history as a worldwide animal education and conservation leader, the San Diego Zoo had a successful reopening weekend despite an increase in Covid-19 cases in the city and across the Golden State.

Prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the San Diego Zoo had only shut down for one day — Sept. 11, 2001.

But the 100-acre zoo shut down from March 16 through June 20, pre-empting Governor Gavin Newsom’s ‘stay at home’ order shutting down nonessential businesses by several days.

During its monthslong closure, the San Diego Zoo joined its peers across the country in turning to online engagement via animal livestream videos to keep its supporters engaged.

Zoo director Dwight Scott told Courthouse News they wanted to “be one of the first organizations to reopen and do it right.”

For now, the San Diego Zoo will max out its capacity at around 5,000 guests. By contrast, on its busiest days during its holiday “Jungle Bells” event, the San Diego Zoo can see about 27,000 guests, Scott said.

A zoo spokesperson said Monday that the zoo and Safari Park “maintained attendance at and under our current limits throughout the weekend,” operating at 50% capacity — around 5,000 for the zoo and 3,000 visitors for the Safari Park.

“Throughout the last three months we have been in close contact with state and local officials and health experts and continue to collaborate with them to ensure that we have practices in place to protect the community, our San Diego Zoo Global family and the wildlife in our care,” the spokesperson said.

The zoo’s reopening comes as California moves into phase 2 of its safe reopening plan for lower-risk workplaces, retail, outdoor museums and other businesses.

But news over the weekend of spike in positive Covid-19 cases since reopening the California economy could quickly change the zoo’s plans.

In San Diego County, 7% of tests were reported positive Saturday. Typical positive test rates have been between 2-4%, and the 14-day rolling average of positive tests in San Diego is 2.8%.

Increasing the San Diego Zoo’s capacity will largely be contingent upon how well visitors follow social-distancing guidelines, Scott said.

“A lot will be determined by what guests are doing, if they are social distancing, wearing masks and using hand washing stations,” Scott said.

The first guests to be welcomed back Friday were arguably the folks who practice social-distancing protocols the best: hundreds of health care workers and their families were given tickets to be the first to see the animals in person since the pandemic.

Belinda Humphries and her son Padraig, a fifth-grade student, were trying to catch a glimpse of the pygmy hippo calf Akobi, born April 9.

The Humphries family at the San Diego Zoo reopening day preview following the zoo’s monthslong pandemic closure. (Courthouse News photo / Bianca Bruno)

Humphries said distance learning was a challenge for her family, but Padraig enjoyed the online Zoom classroom lessons where he could see his friends.

“I don’t think people are taking [the pandemic] seriously,” Humphries, who works at Costco, said. She recalled customers who removed their masks once inside the superstore and violated social distancing by talking too closely to her.

But she said her family was enjoying their day at the zoo, where Padraig — decked out in head-to-toe gorilla gear — was hoping to see some animals he’d learned about the past semester.

“They needed this — a place to go where it’s calm and quiet,” Humphries said.

Veteran interpretative volunteer Darlene McAfee has worked at the San Diego Zoo two days a week for five years and was telling visitors Friday about gorilla Maka’s upcoming 25th birthday Saturday.

“This is my happy place,” McAfee said

She said in the few days since she had been back, she noticed a difference in the animals’ behavior.

“I can tell they missed us. It’s very apparent,” McAfee said.

When asked to elaborate, McAfee said the gorillas made much more eye contact than usual.

“Maybe they were curious about the masks,” McAfee questioned.

The gorillas were also front-and-center for visitors Friday, seated in an almost pose-like position right next to the glass.

Karen Gomez and her granddaughter Abalyn at the gorilla enclosure of the San Diego Zoo. (Courthouse News photo / Bianca Bruno)

McAfee answered some questions by Sharp health care worker Karen Gomez and her 8-year-old granddaughter, Abalyn.

Gomez said she took the day off to take her granddaughter to the zoo and smell the fresh air.

Sharp infection preventionist Marisa Kim also took the day off from work with her husband and two teenagers to visit the San Diego Zoo.

She said her family marveled that morning at being able to have breakfast at a neighborhood pancake shop before heading to the zoo for some time outdoors.

“I’m happy the zoo is adhering to state guidance for reopening safely. They’re doing a great job,” Kim said.

A hippo makes a splash during the San Diego Zoo’s reopening day preview June 19, 2020. (Courthouse News photo / Bianca Bruno)
%d bloggers like this: