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The National Aquarium and Maryland Zoo are set to reopen. Can they overcome financial damage of coronavirus?

A dedicated team of keepers at the Maryland Zoo continues to care for the animals during the coronavirus pandemic.

Like one of its two rescued Grizzly bears emerging from hibernation, a reduced version of the Maryland Zoo will throw open its gates to the public this week for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic forced it to close in mid-March.

The zoo will open Wednesday through Friday for members only. It will welcome the general public Saturday at 25% of its allowable crowd size.

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The National Aquarium, which like the zoo has been shut to visitors during the COVID-19 crisis, will greet its first ticketed guests July 1. The aquarium announced new details Tuesday of how it plans to reopen to the public at 25% capacity.

That enforced three-month fast, when animal and sea life care expenses continued despite the absence of income from ticket sales and fundraising galas, will deprive both organizations of between a quarter and half of their revenues for this year, officials estimate. It remains to be seen whether the pandemic will cause prolonged, and possibly permanent, financial damage to two of the state’s most popular leisure-time attractions.

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“It’s almost inevitable that it would have a lasting impact,” said Don Hutchinson, the Maryland Zoo’s outgoing president and CEO. (Hutchinson, 74, is retiring June 30 after 12 years at the zoo’s helm.)

”This has been one of the hardest times in our history,” he said. “Our unique challenge is that we cannot simply close the gates and walk away. We provided continual care and enrichment for more than 1,500 animals at the Zoo every day, and our responsibility to them did not stop when we were forced to shut down.”

The zoo has an operating budget of about $15.6 million, Hutchison said, and roughly two-thirds of that is spent on animal care. It expects a shortfall of at least $4 million because of the pandemic for the fiscal year ending June 30.

The aquarium devotes about 60% of its $40.2 million budget to caring for the approximately 20,000 fish, sharks, dolphins, sea anemones and other critters under its care. Aquarium CEO John Racanelli estimates that the organization lost about $11.5 million in revenue since March 16 — and he projects a total shortfall of $20 million for all of 2020.

“This is probably the most serious problem the National Aquarium has ever faced,” Racanelli said.

“When the pandemic struck, we couldn’t just turn off the power and lights and lock the doors,” he said. “We can’t scrimp on animal care. That just isn’t an option. We will emerge from this stronger. But it’s going to take time.”

COVID-19 has been especially damaging to organizations such as the zoo and aquarium that rely heavily on income earned from ticket sales, rentals and revenues generated from the use of the facilities. Other nonprofit institutions, such as many museums, derive income from private gifts and public grants.

About 60% of the zoo’s operating budget is derived from earned income, while a whopping 75% of the aquarium’s budget comes from this source.

But the organizations’ leaders say they’re committed to coping.

“These are circumstances that nobody in the universe ever thought we’d have to confront,” Hutchinson said. “But I don’t wring my hands over it. There are 5 million businesses that are being adversely impacted by the pandemic and 40 million people across the country who are out of work. Everyone is being affected.”

The zoo initially furloughed 66 of its 206-member staff. Some 40 employees already have been recalled, and Hutchinson hopes to rehire everyone eventually. The aquarium furloughed 116 of its 376 employees; as of Wednesday, 37 will have been recalled.

“Over time, we hope to bring back the rest,” Racanelli said.

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The pandemic has delayed the aquarium’s ambitious plans to relocate its six bottlenose dolphins from its Baltimore amphitheater to the nation’s first oceanside sanctuary in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands. The move, announced in 2016, originally was slated to take place later this year, though climate change caused it to be pushed back to the end of 2021.

Racanelli said Tuesday that public health and safety restrictions necessitated by the COVID-19 crisis have put that site selection process on hold, though training to acclimate the dolphins to their new home has continued during the pandemic.

He estimates the pandemic has postponed the relocation timeline by an additional year, and now aims to make the move in late 2022 or early 2023.

“Nobody has been getting on planes for the past three months,” he said. “But the dolphins have been having a great time continuing their studies.”

Staff members are eager to re-introduce visitors to the amazing creatures they care for, Hutchinson and Racanelli said.

“We are at our best when we’re open to the public and inspiring the next generation of conservationists,” Racanelli said. “I can’t wait to get back to that job.”

But the pandemic means some popular attractions will remain closed to safeguard staff and visitor safety.

Closures at the zoo include Tundra Buggy and Chimpanzee Forest, along with the Goat Corral, the train, carousel, playground and silo slides, Hutchinson said.

At the aquarium, the 4D theater will stay closed. Guests can walk through the Dolphin Ampitheater, but can no longer sit to observe the playful mammals. A feature that was a visitor favorite — the ability to pet some animals in the Living Seashore tanks — now will have signs reading ”Look, but don’t touch.” And the cafeteria has been closed for indoor dining, though some grab-and-go products will be available for sale.

Still, Hutchinson is relieved that he is retiring in June after the zoo reopens, instead of in April or May, when it had not. Kirby Fowler, former executive director of the Downtown Partnership, becomes the Zoo’s new president on July 1.

“I am so grateful,” Hutchinson said, “that I am leaving on a day when I can be on campus while visitors are enjoying the zoo. It would have been difficult to slip out the back door without having anyone to say goodbye to.

“Will I worry about the zoo’s future? Absolutely. But, we are in a much better position today than we were even last month.”

If you go

When the National Aquarium and Maryland Zoo reopen, visitors will find the same animals but new procedures for enjoying them. Below is a summary of some of the changes designed to ensure staff and guest safety.

The Maryland Zoo:

  • There will be a timed ticket entry for everyone, including members, to limit capacity to 25%. Tickets must be reserved in advance online.
  • Masks are required for all guests who are 9 and older where social distancing is not possible, such as at the main gate, gift shop and concession stands. Masks are recommended for other areas.
  • Zoo pathways will allow for one-way traffic in most areas.

The National Aquarium:

  • There will be a timed ticket entry to limit the facility to 25% capacity. Visitors are encouraged to purchase tickets in advance.
  • Face masks are required for staff and all guests aged 2 and older.
  • Guests will be given a temperature check before being granted access to the exhibits. Those with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher will be refused admission and issued a refund of the purchase price.
  • Guests will be directed to move in a one-way linear path throughout the facility to promote social distancing.

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