The Sedgwick County Zoo reopens to the public Thursday with new COVID-19-related safety precautions.
The zoo closed to visitors March 14 to help slow the spread of the coronavirus in the community.
Members were the first to return during a soft opening this week. Zoo executive director Jeff Ettling says the staff has been working on a phased-in reopening plan since the first day of the shutdown.
“We’re excited to be opening the gates again here at the Sedgwick County Zoo," he said. "The top priority for us in our strategy to reopen has been the safety and well-being of our employees, our animals and our guests."
The "new normal" for the zoo is online ticketing, temporary capacity limits, safe spacing and continuous cleaning and disinfection.
Visiting the zoo will take extra planning now because admission tickets are only available online, and visitors have to schedule a specific entry time. Days reserved for zoo members were sold out.
“We have slots at half-hour increments with the last one being between 2 and 2:30 p.m. Our max attendance for the first two weeks of what we're calling our Phase 1 will be 1,000 people per day,” Ettling said. “And with 115 acres developed, that means we can keep people very well scattered throughout the grounds.”
Ettling says on a good day last year, nearly 3,000 people came to the zoo. He says the temporary capacity limit will rise to 2,000 in the next reopening phase.
The zoo, located in west Wichita, is the top tourist attraction in Kansas. Yearly attendance in 1991 was 349,876; by the end of 2016, attendance grew to more than 700,000, setting a record.
The zoo has set up one-way routes past animal exhibits and uses colorful paw prints and decals to remind visitors to keep their distance at places where lines might form like the entry building or reptile house. Face masks are encouraged but not mandated.
“I can tell you that when I walk around the zoo, the animals take note because there haven't been people in the zoo for, you know, eight weeks," Ettling said. "So it's going to be interesting to see their reaction with people finally back in the zoo."
Two buildings with indoor animal spaces remain closed: the Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley and the African Veldt building. Ettling says the spaces were too tight for social distancing and visitors will be able to see the animals in their outdoor habitats.
Other buildings will have capacity limits. Attractions like boat rides and giraffe feedings remain closed.
The zoo added specific cleaning crews to continuously clean and disinfect tables, garbage/recycling containers, doors, exhibit railings, benches and other areas when the zoo is open.
“There are two teams and they're just going to be rotating throughout the zoo," Ettling said. "The idea is they're going to be cleaning any touchable surface."
A few areas of the zoo — the Tropics, American Barn, Amphibians & Reptiles and Australia and South America — will close for cleaning for a short time each afternoon. In addition, water fountains are covered, the playground is closed and statues are roped off.
As a nonprofit, the zoo relies on funding from ticket sales, memberships, event revenue and donations to support more than 3,000 animals. Ettling says the zoo lost about $1.7 million in revenue due to the two-month shut down.
“Even our modeling shows it could take us a couple years to get back to where we were pre-pandemic. And that's a lot because it means things that we had on the radar in terms of construction and other projects are probably going to be postponed for quite a while,” Ettling said.
The COVID-19 pandemic also idled fundraising for the first phase of zoo’s master plan. Construction continues on a new $10 million entry and administration complex and an updated Amur leopard habitat.
“With the pandemic starting, our fundraising obviously came to a screeching halt," Ettling said. "So we're hoping there will be a point in the very near future that we can start that again."
Ettling says the projects are still on schedule to be completed next summer in time for the zoo’s 50th birthday.
The zoo’s 25-year master plan released in 2018 calls for a concert venue, an aquarium and an African savanna-themed hotel and resort.
Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.