TAMPA ― The otters were excited to see people, too.
Dawn Sousa and her daughter, Makenna, 13, stood by and watched as river otters Brandon and Kraken swam excitedly back and forth across their tank, doing flips and somersaults inside the Florida Aquarium’s Wetlands Trail exhibit.
Besides a limited number of staff, the otter duo hadn’t enjoyed much of an audience since the aquarium closed on March 16, part of the statewide closures to help curb the spread of coronavirus.
On Sunday, the aquarium opened for the first time in nearly two months, welcoming back a limited number of guests to the popular Tampa attraction.
“We’re big animal lovers,” said Sousa. “And for Mother’s Day, it was nice to have something other than social distancing and sitting on the couch.”
Sunday’s reopening marked one of the first for large attractions of its kind in the state of Florida, which last week began slowly easing safer-at-home restrictions and allowing some businesses to open with limited capacity. The Tampa aquarium is the second aquarium in the country to open after the widespread coronavirus-induced shutdowns. The Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Draper, Utah, was the first to open, on Saturday.
To help limit crowds and maintain safe social distancing practices throughout the space, visitors were asked to reserve their tickets online in advance and had to sign up for specific time slots, each spaced 30 minutes apart. Groups larger than eight were not permitted. Once inside the aquarium, guests had to follow a one-way path throughout the exhibits.
“We’re really just trying to pulse people in at a very safe pace,” said Roger Germann, the aquarium’s president and CEO. Germann said his team was taking a “light switch dimmer approach” to the reopening. “We want to ease back into it safely. Our reasoning for reopening is the mental and emotional health of our community.”
Outside the aquarium, guests followed a series of chalk messages (“Welcome back, the animals miss you”) to a string of blue turtle-shaped decals spaced six feet apart outside a bag security checkpoint. Once inside the building, a contactless scan of a cellphone was all it took to check in.
Sunday’s sold-out ticket sales allowed for 1,100 visitors throughout the day with about 130 people entering per hour, beginning at 9:30 a.m. and ending at 5 p.m. Depending on how the next few weeks go, Germann said that number might increase. The current capacity limit is 25 percent, but Germann said they may curb reservations to reflect closer to 12 or 13 percent in the beginning to be safe.
Mother’s Day has always been a huge day for the aquarium, and past years have seen crowds of anywhere from 3,500 to 4,000 people a day. With schools out and soaring temperatures outside, summer months are the busiest, and visitor numbers average anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 people daily.
The aquarium, which is a non-profit organization and celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, lost about $5.5 million in revenue during the shutdown, Germann said. The organization was able to secure a $1.9 million loan during the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program, which allowed all 240 of the aquarium’s staff to remain on payroll, though only a fraction — approximately 35 people —were allowed in the building at any given time to work. Employees who can work from home — including those in marketing and events— are encouraged to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Sunday and Monday were reserved for aquarium members only, after which the attraction will open to City of Tampa first responders and their families Tuesday through Thursday. Beginning on Friday, May 15, the aquarium will be open to the public, with similar capacity and reservation restrictions.
Some attractions and exhibits will stay closed for the time being, Germann said, including the outdoor plaza and splash pad and areas that allowed for close physical contact with the animals, like the stingray touch pool, which for now is for viewing purposes only.
Temperature checks and masks are required for all aquarium staff. Guests are not required to wear masks but the practice is strongly encouraged, Germann said. Many of Sunday’s guests arrived wearing masks and face coverings, though not all did.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Germann said. “But to see so many people coming in wearing masks — it’s fantastic.”
Other safety precautions included limited touch points (bathroom doors were removed, though not the doors to the stalls), no drinking fountain access, plexiglass partitions in some areas, hand sanitizer units throughout the building and decals and signs advising guests of six-foot distancing rules in every exhibit. A large number of staff were stationed throughout the aquarium to help out with crowd control, if necessary.
“If we see people congregating, we will — in our nicest way — remind or encourage them (not to),” Germann said.
In keeping with the educational theme, social distancing terms used marine animals as examples. A sign asked guests to “be aware” of their social distance while alluding to the size of a sand tiger shark (six feet) and in front of the Coral Reef exhibit — one of the aquarium’s main attractions — guests stood near decals of diver fins spaced six feet apart while watching barracudas and rays drift by in the tank above them.
Sara Cummings and her children Michael, 10, and Sicilia, 4, said they were overjoyed to be back at the aquarium, which Cummings said they visited at least once a month before the shutdown.
“We love the shark room,” she said. “I feel like everything is controlled, but without feeling like overwhelming crowd control, which is impressive.”