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Florida Aquarium and ZooTampa CEOs talk about how they decided to reopen

The zoo and aquarium will be some of the first attractions to reopen amid the COVID-19 crisis. The decision was complicated.

Back in February, two of Tampa’s most beloved attractions — ZooTampa at Lowry Park and the Florida Aquarium — were on track to have a record year in ticket sales and revenue.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

Like other attractions and theme parks across the state, both local spots closed their turnstiles in mid-March at the height of spring break. Except for a handful of employees left to take care of the animals and the grounds, all has been quiet during what would have likely been their busiest weeks of the year.

The dive shows at the Florida Aquarium will be suspended during its modified opening because they run for 20 minutes and guests tend to sit down to watch. The aquarium would prefer to keep them moving for social distancing reasons, CEO Roger Germann said. [Times (2014)]

The financial impact has been devastating. The aquarium had a 78 percent drop in revenue, from $5.2 million in March and April of last year compared to $1.1 million for those two months in 2020. And the zoo was driven to furlough nearly 300 employees.

Both places announced on Monday they would reopen with modified operations, after the state’s stay-at-home order was lifted. They both shared their plans with local officials and announced this week that the aquarium will open to the public on May 15, and the zoo on June 1.

We talked to the CEOs of both local attractions — the zoo’s Joe Couceiro and the Florida Aquarium’s Roger Germann, who each have more than 25 years under their belts as veterans of the attractions industry. Both said they consulted with their counterparts around the world before deciding to reopen, and both expect these modified visiting plans to be in place for quite some time.

ZooTampa at Lowry Park

Joe Couceiro, a former vice president of Busch Gardens and the Chicago Zoological Society, took the helm of the then-Lowry Park Zoo in 2015. The past five years has brought a new name, a slick theme park-style water raft ride called Roaring Waters and a $3 million upgrade to the zoo’s manatee care center. Aside from a 2019 investigation into the unorthodox treatment of sick manatees and later resignation of Ray Ball, a self-proclaimed “rogue veterinarian," the zoo has been on a roll with record ticket sales and donations in the past few years.

Its 17-page reopening road map submitted to the county is a plan that is more conservative than others that have been announced. Along with limiting park capacity, enforcing social distancing and limiting groups to 10 or fewer, the zoo is hiring on-premise EMTs and adding thermal monitoring stations at the entrance. They will also be providing personal protective equipment to employees and offering disposable masks to any guest free of charge.

Here’s what Couceiro had to say about the plan.

Joe Couceiro, CEO of ZooTampa at Lowry Park. [ZooTampa]

What was your thinking process when deciding when to reopen?

It was a little like playing a chess game without actually being able to see the chess pieces on the board. We wanted to make sure that when we opened we would be prepared to do this for an extended period of time under what we call modified operations.

Were there any overseas attractions that have reopened that you looked as an example?

We studied everything from Publix supermarkets to other zoos to any operation that has opened or stayed open. We certainly aren’t embarrassed to borrow a good idea. Things like face shields for cashiers, I frankly insisted upon by experiencing that myself standing in front of a Publix cashier.

Some attractions are opening earlier, and some are still undetermined. What made you settle on June 1?

The main thing was that we give ourselves enough time, since we need to initiate training for our employees. The last thing I want to do is rush into an opening. I did not want to be open during Memorial Day weekend. We wanted to open up gradually.

ZooTampa in 2018 opened the Roaring Springs water ride near the Jungle Carousel, a three-story plunge that lasts about a minute. [BORCHUCK, JAMES | Tampa Bay Times (2018)]

When you have pent-up demand people want to get out and enjoy the sunshine, so I understand it. But without guardrails, sometimes things get out of hand. The benefit we have is we can control the point of entry and make sure we only allow so many people in the zoo and we can enforce guidelines of 25 percent capacity in the restaurants, and we can manage how many people go in the bathrooms and we can avoid any congregation of crowds. We have a much more controlled environment than simply opening up a public park or beach.

You don’t have too many indoor areas, but how are you handling them?

We have a pass-through in our manatee area, and we are bringing in a specialist to look at that. We are offering masks to anyone who doesn’t have one. I felt strongly that we should do that.

Overseas, many attractions and stores are requiring customers to wear face masks. So far, masks are not mandatory in the U.S.

I think there’s a hesitancy to intrude on privacy. But we feel strongly that if someone brings their friends or family to the zoo that they feel safe. Not just for the guests but for the employees. I understand you do not need a mask walking around the expansive zoo in the fresh air. But if they are going to be in any type of environment, like the manatee pass-through, then I want to make sure masks are required, especially if the experts think that’s a good idea. But that said, it’s a small portion of the zoo.

Dee Dee and her baby at ZooTampa at Lowry Park in January 2018. The zoo plans to reopen on May 15. [ZooTampa at Lowry Park]

Did you have furloughs and can you bring all employees back?

We furloughed about 75 percent of our staff. We should be able to bring all of them back, but we may not do it all at the same time. We want to see what the attendance is. We are limiting the capacity to 50 percent of normal, so we want to ensure that when we bring them back it’s because we have the demand and the attendance for us to be able to maintain that job. The last thing I want to do is to bring an employee back and then have to re-furlough them.

What’s your prediction for the future?

I think the industry is going through a metamorphosis. We were having a very strong year before shutting down during a peak in attendance. We shut down on our busiest week and we were well ahead of last year and well ahead of attendance. In order for the industry to rebound, we need to continue to build on our brands and that demand we had. We can do that as long as we can operate safely and efficiently, and that’s our plan.

Will this forever change us?

I think that goes well beyond zoos and theme parks. A lot can change, as medicines and vaccines become available. But the consumer behavior will become ingrained and become a little more cautious. Shaking hands seems foreign right now. It’s funny to see a movie and seeing people shaking hands and embracing. As far as I’m concerned, I want to make sure the zoo is prepared to operate in a safe condition indefinitely, not just for the next few weeks or next few months, but as long as it takes. We wanted to open up to provide the community with a safe place to go and relieve a little stress and reconnect with the family.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve run out of Netflix things to watch.

Florida Aquarium

There will be no touch tanks, and guests will be required to maintain a safe distance from each other and register online in advance to obtain an appointed visitation time. But the Florida Aquarium is opening sooner than most attractions on May 15, and they never furloughed their 240 employees. But they did get nearly $2 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program system. About a dozen employees were let go from projects they decided to delay, officials said.

But the blazing success the 25-year-old aquarium has had in recent years has helped cushion this tough time, said CEO Roger Germann, who was hired away from Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium in 2017 to helm the fish palace on Channelside Drive in Tampa.

A lionfish on display at the Florida Aquarium. [JIM REED | Tampa Bay Times]

Last year’s record ticket sales and donor contributions gave the aquarium the financial cushion it needed during the two-month shutdown, but their new reality allows for much smaller capacity: The aquarium is limiting itself to 150 guests per hour, or about 12 percent of its regular capacity.

Guests can only come during their appointed times, though there’s no time limit once you are inside the aquarium. Guests will find a path on the floor similar to Publix’s new one-way aisles. The path will direct people through the 250,000-square-foot aquarium, which typically takes two-and-a-half hours to explore.

Why did you choose May 15, a much earlier opening date than other places?

We know the role we play in our community, and this came up during Hurricane Irma, that we needed a plan in place to reopen. Not from a business standpoint but from a healing standpoint. We created an inter-departmental reopening task force that literally started at the same time we shut the doors. Once the governor, the mayor and the county all felt Florida could reopen safely on May 4, we looked at each other and said ‘Well, we have done seven week’s worth of work, what can we do as part of the healing process in the community?’ Even at a limited capacity, folks can come here and get a chance to escape, to connect with nature and animals and recharge that mental and emotional battery.

Roger Germann was named the CEO of the Florida Aquarium in 2017. [Florida Aquarium]

What are you going to do to ensure social distancing?

We have put on hold our animal touch exhibits, like sting rays, and we will have locations taped off for physical distancing. We have closed the playground and splash pad. We are going to put on hold the actual presentations in the tanks and dives. That’s because those shows run a good 20 minutes and require you to sit down. We want people to keep flowing and moving.

Did you consider making masks mandatory for guests?

My friends in parks overseas tell me that for people in Asia, wearing masks is no big deal and I don’t culturally know how that works. But here, all of our staff members and volunteers will be required to wear masks in all public spaces. We are asking our guests to use common sense. Wear masks. We are looking at selling masks in our store for those who don’t have them, but we are not going to require them for now. But we hope and encourage people will wear masks.

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