Oregon Zoo Reaches Deal With State Officials, Will Reopen to the Public This Weekend

The number of visitors will be capped, and you'll need to buy tickets in advance to tour the new one-way route through the property.

Bull Asian elephants Samudra (left) and Samson in the pool at Elephant Lands. © Oregon Zoo / photo by Michael Durham.

The Oregon Zoo is ready to welcome back visitors for the first time in nearly four months—thanks to a compromise with state officials that allows the attraction to increase capacity while keeping people apart.

Even though other large attractions, like malls and some state parks, have been allowed to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the zoo held off on allowing visitors to return, saying capacity guidelines issued by the governor's office made reopening impossible.

As WW reported last week, the Oregon Health Authority initially capped the number of individuals allowed on the property at any one time to 250. However, the zoo has 200 employees at full staffing, leaving little room for visitors.

Updated direction from the governor's office will allow the creation of "zones" within the zoo, allowing as many as 800 guests to safely maintain their distance from one another. Visitors will follow a one-way path through zoo exhibits.

"We spoke with the governor's office," says zoo spokesman Hova Najarian, "and they provided additional guidance on how to open under the existing guidelines by creating zones within the zoo, thus allowing for appropriate physical distancing and minimal overlap within cohorts."

Although the zoo doesn’t anticipate 800 visitors inside all at once, that number would give each person 275 square feet of space, going well beyond the OHA recommendation of 35 square feet per person. Around 85 staff membersnot including those who care for the animals and generally don’t come into contact with visitorswill be on hand to help monitor different segments of the property, helping ensure people are appropriately spaced out.

Like bars, restaurants and other institutions that have emerged from lockdown due to coronavirus, the zoo will implement new safety measures. To prevent crowds from gathering, visitors must reserve their tickets online in advance, choosing a specific day and time slot, and are allowed approximately two hours to complete their tours.

The zoo's one-way route primarily winds through outdoor exhibits on the 64-acre campus. Some indoor areas, the carousel and train rides will be off limits. Masks are required for zoo employees and guests over the age of 6, and kids between 2 and 5 are encouraged to wear them, if possible. You'll also find additional hand-washing and sanitizing stations. If needed, the zoo will help designated contact tracers track down parties who potentially have the virus, since each entry is time logged.

After closing March 17 in an effort to help quell the spread of COVID-10, the state's largest paid tourist attraction has been hemorrhaging money. It costs about $2 million a month to care for the animals, keep up the grounds and prepare to reopen. While the zoo's director says there has been an outpouring of financial support from donors to the Oregon Zoo Foundation, the $1 million infusion of cash isn't enough to keep the property running for the long term without paying guests.

Zoo members will get first access to the property during a preview scheduled July 9-11. The general public can start visiting Sunday, July 12.

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