By Bob Uphues
If anyone doubted that visitors would flock back to Brookfield Zoo once it reopened on July 1 after a nearly four-month hiatus due to the CIVID-19 pandemic, those would have melted instantly in the 90-degree sunshine of last week.
The members-only relaunch of the zoological park blossoms this week into an all-welcome affair, making reservations a very hot ticket item since Brookfield Zoo must operate within capacity limits until the state is able to fully reopen, which is not likely for some time.
"It's a great feeling to finally get back to a sense of a new normal," said Leah Rippe, vice president of marketing and communications for the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo. "We've been very lonely and we are eager to see our guests and members back."
Among those visiting the zoo during the first couple of days was Cook County Board President Tony Preckwinkle, who had dropped by a for a morning visit before it got too hot on the morning of July 2 and was seen leaving via the South Gate just after 10 a.m.
As she was leaving, a steady stream of families were strolling in the other direction into the park where they were greeted by a very large animatronic Ankylosaurus, screeching at visitors as they passed by.
Even with the building crowd, there was still plenty of room for families to maneuver without getting too close to one another. Carts laden with gifts and open-air concession stands selling food and drinks from the still-shuttered gift shops and restaurants dotted the zoo's walking paths.
"We're still trying to gauge capacity," said Rippe, adding that the zoo had targeted 2,500 to 3,000 people as maximum capacity to start with.
"This week was kind of a trial week to see what 2,500 to 3,000 people looks like in the park, and we're then slowly going to increase that capacity," Rippe said. "On 216 acres you can handle more. You can absolutely social distance here."
The zoo is allowing entry via timed ticket only. Visitors must reserve a time and pay for tickets and parking online. No tickets are sold onsite and once all of tickets for a particular day are purchased, that's it.
Asked how the first day went in terms of attendance, Rippe answered, "We were sold out. We're actually seeing an increase in memberships right now just so people can come earlier."
Chicago residents Sonny Martinez and Limari Huertas, zoo members for the past eight years, brought their two children for a visit on July 2 and were grateful for the outing.
"We took it as a good opportunity to get some fresh air and stretch our legs," said Martinez, who like the rest of his family was wearing a face mask. "Being cooped up for three months now, we saw the chance that the zoo was providing a safe environment where it wasn't crowded and you could space each other out. I could see they have adequate hand-sanitizing stations and reduced the possibility of clustering people closer together."
His daughter, Imari was excited to visit. Asked what she was looking forward to seeing, she said, "Nothing in specific. I'm just really glad we can get out and just know the animals."
Tiffany and Adam Gabrys drove up from far southwest suburban New Lenox to arrive for their morning slot on July 2. Tiffany said she was "pretty impressed" by the steps zoo officials had taken to ensure a safe environment.
"There's definitely enough room to move around," Tiffany said. "I think people are being really respectful if you're getting too close to either put your mask back on or intentionally walk around other people to maintain your space. Wearing a mask is kind of a small sacrifice to be able to enjoy some things."
The Gabrys family have been zoo members for two years, purchasing their membership just after their daughter, Lexi, was born. The biggest attraction for Lexi, who was having a look at the rhinos, was the Dinos Everywhere! display of life-size dinosaurs, including the enormous 100-foot long Argentinosaurus, which stood nearby on the West Mall.
"She's obsessed with dinosaurs," Tiffany said of Lexi.
Rippe said visitors so far had been following guidelines for wearing face coverings and maintaining physical distance. They'd also clearly gotten the message about the reservation-only entry system; they didn't have to turn anyone away at the gate on the first day the zoo reopened.
"I think the face coverings was the biggest surprise. I was glad to see that about 99 percent of the guests were complying by the recommended guidelines that we're following by the state" Rippe said, adding that as long as people maintain their distance from others, they don't have to wear the face coverings continually inside the zoo. "If making a purchase at a kiosk for food or merchandise, we do ask that you wear the masks, also if you're doing the goat feedings or giraffe feedings, facemasks are required.
And because all transactions at the zoo are cashless for now, if you want to feed the goats you'd better make sure you have two quarters, because they're not giving any change.