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Omaha zoo taking ‘cautious step’ into the future

December 28, 2020 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — It’s been a tough year for Omaha’s zoo, but the director of the facility sees better times ahead.

The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on attendance and membership sales at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. The zoo recently set a budget for 2021 of about $36 million — about 60% less than the original 2020 budget. The zoo suffered an estimated $26 million revenue loss in 2020.

“(We’re) moving one cautious step at a time,” Dennis Pate, the director and CEO of the zoo, told the Omaha World-Herald.

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The coronavirus closed the zoo to the public from March 16 through June 1, and it reopened with significant restrictions. That resulted in salary reductions and layoffs affecting about 10% of staff.

But in recent months have seen an increase in attendance, membership purchases and aid from federal coronavirus relief money. It helped that the fall was warm and dry, Pate said.

A three-day Black Friday membership deal brought 3,000 sales, surpassing Black Friday sales of the past few years. Federal dollars distributed by Douglas County and the state are helping with operating costs and COVID-19 safety upgrades like automatic flush valves and touchless sinks.

“Even though we’re not back — not in revenue, not in visitors — we’re doing better with some hope out there,” Pate said.

A few new projects are happening. The zoo is installing new netting and a new boardwalk in the aviary, which is expected to reopen this spring.

The Hubbard Gorilla Valley is undergoing a $7 million upgrade. Construction is expected to conclude in May. Harper Event Center is a new venue. A stingray exhibit will open around Memorial Day.