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Some Utah institutions dip their toe into reopening during a challenging time.

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  • Erica Hansen

For the many businesses and gathering places that were forced to close as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the process of thinking about how they would re-open again began immediately. Yet for many of them, the processes took turns that they weren't expecting. Thanksgiving Point vice-president of operations Kendall Widmer, for instance, probably didn't think that the road to reopening would include a field trip to Costco.

"We were seeing how they installed plexiglass, how they moved cars through their gas pumps," Widmer says. "We were all there with our masks. It was a surreal experience. But it matters. Safety matters. We're not taking it lightly. ... The downtime we had was spent well, on conference calls with other museums around the country. It's a whole new business."

Public spaces like Thanksgiving Point—which, along with Hogle Zoo and The Living Planet Aquarium, reopened to guests during the first weeks of May—have made every effort to make it clear to guests that they're taking it seriously that this isn't exactly a return to normalcy. All three locations announced new policies in accordance with Utah state guidelines, including increased sanitation efforts, mandatory face masks for staff members, decreased capacity, timed reservations via online ticketing and designing specific pathways to help facilitate social distancing.

  • Erica Hansen

While there is some controversy surrounding the question of whether it's safe yet for such locations to reopen, facilities like Hogle Zoo and The Loveland Living Planet Aquarium faced additional financial pressures that led them to be ready to go as soon as the state gave the go-ahead. "A lot of businesses when they close, their costs go down," says Hogle Zoo's Erica Hansen. "Our expenses stay the same. We have animals that prefer fine meat and fine fish, and they need health care. ... Our goal has always been, the day they say we can open, to be ready to go, and obviously we want to do that with everyone's health in mind."

"We're following the guidelines laid out by federal and state authorities, in fact maybe even being a little more conservative about what we do," says The Living Planet Aquarium's marketing and communications director, Layne Pitcher. "And we are very pleased with how it turned out."

For all of these venues, the opening has been a phased process. Thanksgiving Point opened its outdoor venues first—Ashton Gardens and Farm Country—because of the easier social distancing possibilities and to observe how operations were proceeding. Hogle Zoo is waiting to open highly interactive attractions like the carousel and train, while the aquarium similarly has limited access to some spaces.

Yet the need to insure safety has also inspired some creative thinking, as Thanksgiving Point's Wimmer noted about the decision to open the erosion table at the Museum of Ancient Life when that venue reopened May 8. "It is chlorinated water," Wimmer says, "but one of the issues is crowding. We limited capacity for the exhibit, and color coded it—two kids on green and two kids on yellow and two kids on red. Kids really respond to that."

Turning new restrictions into a kind of game has been helpful for young visitors to the zoo as well, according to Hansen, as it instituted a one-direction pathway through the exhibits: "The way the zoo is laid out now, one mom said, 'Thank you for making my kid understand where we can go.' Looking for the next arrow is kind of a map."

The venues acknowledge that there is still a learning curve to these new procedures, and some ongoing difference of opinion not just over whether the venues should be open at all, but over what kind of restrictions should be placed on guests. "We did have staff expressing concern about opening up; why don't they [guests] have to wear masks if we do?" Hansen says. "It's something we've taken very seriously. I think our management was great in listening to staff concerns, like keeping public pathways separate from staff pathways."

While all the venues limited attendance in an effort to maintain social distancing guidelines, they all note that there was no way of knowing whether they'd face more people reluctant to attend for a while until the pandemic seemed more under control, or more people eager to have activities for themselves and their families. Yet despite the uncertainty, the venues say that, at least initially, the response by visitors has been overwhelmingly positive, and full of gratitude.

"It was a lot of pressure for an operations guy on doing this right," Thanksgiving Point's Wimmer says. "Honestly I didn't know what to expect. But an older couple walked up to me, the man had tears in his eyes and thanked me for opening up the gardens. ... To put ourselves out there and offer a service, people are grateful."

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