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Patrons return as Zoo Atlanta reopens with coronavirus safeguards

People line up to enter Zoo Atlanta on Saturday, May 16, 2020. The zoo is letting 150 people enter the zoo every half-hour. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
People line up to enter Zoo Atlanta on Saturday, May 16, 2020. The zoo is letting 150 people enter the zoo every half-hour. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Zoo Atlanta reopened this past weekend for its first visitors since mid-March with new restrictions to help mitigate any potential spread of COVID-19.

Patrons now enter with tickets for appointed times. Rides, playgrounds, indoor habitats, restaurants and other enclosed spaces remain closed. Pre-packaged foods are available and zoo leadership has instituted new cleaning protocols for the park and restrooms.

Sylidia Italiano of Kennesaw brought her granddaughter and said she researched the zoo’s new procedures before they bought tickets.

“We got the first ones,” she said as she awaited the zoo’s 10 a.m. opening Saturday. “It’s a nice situation. I do like that they have the indoors facilities closed.”

Marlie Arnold helps her son Lucas with his mask before entering Zoo Atlanta on Saturday, May 16, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Marlie Arnold helps her son Lucas with his mask before entering Zoo Atlanta on Saturday, May 16, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Dr. Hayley Murphy, Zoo Atlanta deputy director, said the zoo spent six weeks in intensive planning to reopen safely. Staffers have received training on disinfecting surfaces and the use of personal protective equipment. Employees must take their temperatures and answer health surveys before returning to work and any employees who feel ill are not permitted to report.

Zoo janitorial staff will disinfect the grounds every 60 to 90 minutes and restrooms every half-hour, she said. The park now features one-way flow to help assist in social distancing.

“There’s one-way flow through the park and there are multiple signs in the park asking people to socially distance,” Murphy said. “Any place that we thought people may want to stop and take in the scenery (or watch) the elephants and gorillas, we put in squares on the ground that say ‘stop here’ and are eight feet apart.”

On a typical spring day like Saturday, Murphy said about 5,000 to 7,000 patrons might visit, but the zoo expected about 3,000 or fewer this Saturday.

She said staffers will also encourage people to continue moving if there’s congestion. Zoo Atlanta employees also wear masks and visitors are encouraged to as well, but it is not required.

People line up to enter Zoo Atlanta on Saturday, May 16, 2020. The zoo is letting 150 people enter the zoo every half-hour. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
People line up to enter Zoo Atlanta on Saturday, May 16, 2020. The zoo is letting 150 people enter the zoo every half-hour. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Patrons have appointed ticket times but there is no metering within the park. Murphy said patrons before the coronavirus tended to spend a maximum of two-and-a-half hours in the park, but the zoo expects visits to last about 90 minutes with the new restrictions in place.

Murphy said zoo leadership has been in contact with other zoos to share safety protocols.

“We have been super conservative because we want to make sure the experience is safe not only for our team members and guests but for the animals,” she said.

Some Grant Park neighbors have been less than excited about the zoo’s opening. Many criticized the reopening plans on social media.

Crystal Bridges, who lives in East Atlanta and walked Saturday through Grant Park, said she the zoo’s plan sounded organized.

“To be honest, I think it’s a great idea,” she said. “I feel like eventually we have to get out and socialize for our mental health and our physical health. Hopefully once we get everything figured out, we’ll partake in it ourselves.”