Parks, Malls and Big Box Stores Are Open, but the Oregon Zoo Is Closed and Hemorrhaging Cash

Zoo officials are seeking relief from strict state guidelines.

California condor in Condors of the Columbia at the Oregon Zoo. © Oregon Zoo / photo by Michael Durham.

As COVID-19 sweeps Oregon, you can shop at Washington Square Mall or Home Depot, or congregate in city or state parks. But you cannot go to the Oregon Zoo.

The state's largest paid tourist attraction drew 1.7 million visitors in 2018, most of them during the summer months when kids are out of school. But the zoo remains off limits.

A spokesman for Gov. Kate Brown says that's the zoo's choice—state guidelines allow the zoo to reopen.

"Our office has worked with the Oregon Zoo to ensure they can reopen and adhere to the guidance," says Liz Merah, a spokeswoman for Brown. "My understanding is that they have chosen not to reopen, but I defer to them as to why they've made that decision."

Zoo officials say the Oregon Health Authority's "guidance" is unworkable.

"OHA's initial guidance governing operation of zoos limited the zoo to no more than 250 individuals—staff and visitors—on campus at any time," says zoo spokesman Hova Najarian.

At full staffing, the zoo employs 200 people. That doesn't leave much room for customers.

The financial consequences of continued closure are dire. Pre-COVID-19, it cost about $120,000 a day to operate the zoo, Najarian says. Even with layoffs, somebody needs to take care of the animals, maintain the property and prepare for reopening, so costs have been whittled down but still run $77,000 a day, or more than $2 million a month—with zero income.

Nearly two months ago, zoo director Don Moore told WW he hoped to reopen this summer. Najarian says the zoo has been seeking an accommodation from the state that may allow it to open soon.

"Revised guidance indicates we can create 'zones' within the zoo with 250 individuals, which will allow us to host visitors and needed staff and still provide for safe spacing between guests," Najarian says.

The question now is whether the state will indeed relax restrictions even as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to spike and some are calling on the governor to reverse course on reopening.

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