What’s it like taking your kids to the zoo during a pandemic?

Zoo Atlanta's new safety measures limit the risk involved and helped get my stir-crazy kids out of the house

Visiting Zoo Atlanta in the pandemic
Elephants at Zoo Atlanta

Photo by Tara Kelly

Confession: I dread Saturdays. My four-year-old startles me out of bed, his eyes wide with excitement. “What are we doing today, Mommy?” he asks. He’s old enough to remember weekends past, filled with pool time, play dates, and museum visits. Yet he’s young enough to still be optimistic, sure that today will be the day we do something fun—something different.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the closing of schools, daycares, and attractions around the city, it’s become harder to fill the time. Do we make plans with friends, knowing full well the kids won’t maintain social distance? Do we chance a visit to the aquarium, crossing our fingers that the crowds aren’t too big? Or do we stay home and play in our backyard, just like Every. Single. Day?

Kids, in theory, are at a lower risk for complications from the novel coronavirus. “We seem to be seeing that children with COVID-19 infections have very mild symptoms. If they have more severe symptoms that require hospital stays, they recover very well from those symptoms,” says Andi Shane, chief of Emory and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and a Marcus Professor of Hospital Epidemiology and Infection Control.

But I still worry about the Kawasaki-like symptoms I read about in the news, which have been reported in juvenile COVID-19 patients in several states, including Georgia. “MIS-C is what it’s called: Post Infectious Inflammatory Condition,” Dr. Shane says. “It’s been very rare in Georgia. We have seen a few kids in our hospital who have done very well. We don’t want anyone to get sick but because it’s so rare, and it’s something we can’t really predict; the existence of this syndrome doesn’t change the guidance of how we react in the environment.”

So, three-and-a-half months into quarantine, I finally decided I was ready to take some (calculated) risks to entertain the kids. A trusted friend told me she felt safe when she took her children to Zoo Atlanta. I was dubious, but I opted to do some research.

After shutting down in March due to the pandemic, Zoo Atlanta reopened on May 16 with “a new and improved experience” that was two months in the making, according to the zoo’s Deputy Director Hayley Murphy. “We’re monitoring local and regional news. We’re taking it a week at a time, making sure our guests and employees feel safe,” she says.

Murphy tells me the zoo’s current daily capacity is about 3,000 people, contrasted with 10,000 on a busy, pre-COVID-19 day. Timed ticketing is required for entry, so be sure to secure your spot online before you go. Murphy says there are 70 hand sanitizer stations located throughout the park, each monitored and refilled continuously. High-touch attractions, such as the carousel, train, petting zoo, and part of the indoor reptile exhibit are still closed. And masks are required for everyone older than four in the open indoor areas.

I signed my family up for a 10:30 a.m. slot on a Saturday, hoping to beat both the crowds and the heat. We arrived a few minutes early and lo and behold, there were actual parking spots available. (If you’ve been to the zoo on a prepandemic weekend, you know you’ll usually circle the lot for at least 10 minutes.)

Check-in was painless and nearly contactless. My son wanted to see the rhinos first, but as the zoo is now organized into a one-way loop, he’d have to wait until we came back around. It takes the kids a little getting used to, but I love the one-way path. Arguments about what to see next and time spent studying the map are virtually eliminated. The usual jostling for the best viewing spot is unnecessary, too. Floor markings and ropes guide your experience. Yellow boxes mark distanced spaces for each family to view the animals. At popular exhibits like the pandas, staff members also help keep the lines moving.

I was still worried about my 22-month-old, who likes to touch everything—including her mouth. But Murphy, the zoo director, told me all railings are disinfected every 30 to 90 minutes, and the restrooms are cleaned hourly.

“We know the virus can be transmitted if someone with the virus leaves a secretion on a surface. We just [need to] focus on ourselves and keep ourselves as clean as possible,” Dr. Shane says. “If your child is touching rails and doing the things kids do, that’s the time to wipe their hands or use sanitizing gel. It doesn’t taste that good, so that’s one deterrent for them putting their hands in their mouth.”

There were a couple of times my husband stopped by a hand-sanitizing station, only to find it empty. But since we brought our own, it certainly wasn’t a deal-breaker.

We skipped the indoor exhibits—my kids aren’t great about wearing masks—but even outside, nearly half of the people around us were face-safe, which made me feel better. There were more than a few times I had to remind my kids to “keep space” and not to touch anything, but that’s the new normal, right?

Dr. Shane says with the new safety measures, the zoo “is more like going to an outdoor park. It might be less risky because it’s more controlled with a limited number of people.”

“Children are very dependent on being around other children for their growth and socialization,” Dr. Shane adds. “Activities like the zoo and botanical gardens are important to socialization.”

My kids certainly benefited. They couldn’t wait to tell their grandparents about the giraffes and zebras they saw on their next FaceTime call.

The only downside to our trip? Now the bar has been raised for what we’re doing next Saturday.