The coronavirus pandemic is causing the Minnesota Zoo to lay off 48 workers as it braces for a projected loss of $15 million over the next two years.
“It’s been a hard eight weeks for the Minnesota Zoo,” said director John Frawley. “We’ve been taking things day to day and sometimes hour by hour.”
A total of 125 employees are affected by the cuts as the zoo holds off on hiring dozens of seasonal employees and leaves open vacant positions, he said. Several large projects are on hold.
The zoo’s woes prompted Gov. Tim Walz to include an emergency appropriation of $6 million in his proposed budget to sustain the zoo during the pandemic. Even with that infusion, the zoo will scale back programs and reduce expenses.
But there may be hope in the near future. Officials are taking a cue from zoos around the world, making tentative plans to reopen some version of the attraction in the coming months.
One idea is a “socially distanced” zoo using timed ticketing or allowing a limited number of visitors inside.
Another option would be letting people drive through portions of the 485-acre campus in Apple Valley to view animals. The zoo’s extensive outdoor space, large animal habitats and three separate entrances will be useful in these cases, officials said.
“We really think we can be part of the healing of Minnesota,” Frawley said. “We’re going to do our best to reopen our zoo.”
The reopening isn’t possible, however, without a $6 million infusion from the state, officials said. The zoo had an annual operating budget of around $26.5 million in 2016 and houses more than 4,900 animals.
The zoo closed to the public March 14, though zoo staff remain on site to care for the animals. The shuttering occurred at the start of the zoo’s busy season and just as the popular Farm Babies exhibit was scheduled to open. Officials expect the zoo to remain closed for all or most of the third quarter, which ends June 30.
The zoo has been trying to give visitors a smaller dose of Farm Babies by making the exhibit virtual. Calves made their online debut this week. Next week, the zoo will unveil a surprise baby animal.
Frawley said the zoo’s animals are doing fine and getting plenty of attention. The zoo’s priority is safety during the pandemic, he said, both for employees and animals. The zoo had to “pivot really quickly,” taking measures to ensure animal safety when it was announced last month that several big cats at the Bronx Zoo contracted COVID-19.
The zoo was in the midst of a strong year financially, officials said. Now, it’s projected to lose at least $6.3 million in the three-plus months from March 14 to June 30.
“The closure had an immediate and dramatic impact on revenue,” said Abigail Mosher, the zoo’s chief financial officer.
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, supports providing the zoo with funding to stay afloat. A measure in the state House of Representatives includes $350,000 toward funding the zoo’s emergency operations.
“I really don’t want to lose this resource,” she said.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said he also backs the idea but wants the funding to be given in conjunction with reopening the zoo “in a responsible fashion.”
“If an indoor Walmart can be crammed full of people, then the outdoor portion of the zoo can be opened while maintaining social distance,” he said.