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Omaha zoo slowly returning to normal after virus closure
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Omaha zoo slowly returning to normal after virus closure

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OMAHA — The past 12 weeks at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium have been perplexing for Dennis Pate, zoo director and CEO.

There were no crowds, which felt about right when the weather was still cold, Pate said. But as the weather improved, there still were no crowds because of the COVID-19 closure. “It was like a winter day,” Pate said. “But it was 80 degrees out.”

On June 1, though, some semblance of normalcy returned when the zoo opened its gates with many changes and some cooperative weather. A few thousand visitors have strolled around the zoo each day since.

“It’s a step in the direction of normalcy,” Walter Jones, a zoo member who had three grandchildren with him last Sunday, said of the reopening.

And to be sure, the zoo is not back to normal yet.

All indoor exhibits are closed, and visitors are funneled on a one-way walk around the zoo. More exhibits could open in the next two to three weeks, Pate said, depending on what visitor feedback is received and further evaluations of how the zoo can keep visitors safe.

Along the one-way path are 50 hand-sanitizing stations, painted paw prints that visualize social distancing recommendations and concession stands with plastic shields between employees and visitors.

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Adhering to the state’s directed health measure, the zoo allows no more than 3,000 people in at a time. This week, Pate said, the zoo has seen from 1,500 people per day earlier in the week to just more than 3,000 people on Saturday.

Melissa Clopton, a zoo member from Hastings, said she enjoyed fewer zoo visitors.

“It’s been good to get out, get some fresh air and do something other than sit at home,” said the stay-at-home mom, who had her two children in tow.

Pate described the zoo’s financial situation as “struggling mightily.” As a nonprofit, 91% of the zoo’s income comes from admissions, memberships and other sales.

On a typical June Sunday before COVID-19, the zoo attracted an average of 9,700 visitors, a zoo spokeswoman said. That’s dramatically more than Saturday’s 3,000.

But the zoo can depend on many faithful members to turn out.

“I’m slightly addicted to the zoo,” Brandy Rader of Omaha said. Rader said she used to come twice a week. She also joked that her friend, who was with her on June 7, had a “disgusting” attendance record, as the friend hadn’t been to the zoo in five years.

The zoo looked to its peers when planning the reopening, Pate said. Based on other zoos across the country, Pate expects attendance to pick up about a month from reopening.

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“It really kind of changed our attitudes,” Pate said of building a plan to reopen. Hard decisions led to the zoo decreasing its budget by 36%, furloughing some employees and cutting some positions.

For him, a step forward leading up to the reopening was to try to focus on something else.

Searching for positives, Pate landed on the fact that less foot traffic led to more efficient construction projects.

With summerlike weather last Sunday and visitors strolling past giraffes and sea lions, things seemed like they were headed toward normal.

“It’s nice to see all the things we’ve been doing are working out,” said Diane Kohout, the zoo’s spokesperson.

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