Officials urge Thompson Park zoo reopening

Larry Sorel, CEO and executive director of the Thompson Park zoo. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Visitors can make the hour drive down to Syracuse to see the animals at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo but can’t visit the zoo here in Thompson Park.

Larry Sorel, CEO and executive director of the New York State Zoo in Thompson Park, wants to know why.

The Thompson Park zoo remains closed as part of the state’s closure for nonessential businesses in response of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Syracuse zoo is open. Why can’t we?” he asked. “The answer is: they’re out of compliance.”

Zoos, amusement parks, movie theaters, tourist attractions and entertainment would reopen under Phase IV of the local economy. Mr. Sorel hopes that happens next Friday.

But the Syracuse zoo, owned and operated by Onondaga County, has been open since May 23 after County Executive J. Ryan McMahon II approved its opening. Guests can only visit by making reservations beforehand.

But Scott A. Gray, Jefferson County Legislature chairman, said the Syracuse zoo is not in compliance with the state’s rules. He cannot offer an explanation for why those kind of “inconsistencies” occur with the state rules.

But he and the other members of the Control Room — officials from surrounding counties who are overseeing the north country’s reopening — have asked the state numerous times to reopen the local zoo.

It’s frustrating because he thinks that the region is ready for the Phase IV reopening.

“I don’t see any reason why we can’t open,” Mr. Gray said, adding that COVID-19 numbers “look good.”

Mr. Sorel has talked to Mr. Gray, Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith and local state lawmakers to see what they could do to get the zoo open.

The Buffalo Zoo and the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester are closed during the pandemic. Syracuse zoo officials could not be reached for comment.

Thompson Park zoo officials already have a plan to ensure visitors are safe and maintain social distancing rules for when the zoo does reopen, Mr. Sorel said.

Guests will be encouraged to wear masks, while employees are required to wear face coverings and have their temperatures taken before they can work. Plexiglass will be put up at the guest counter. Guests must follow one-way paths through the zoo. The zoo also will go through extensive cleansing and sanitation procedures.

He also hopes that the state releases information soon about exactly what steps should be taken to reopen so that the zoo can prepare in advance.

Another of the area’s big attractions is taking a different approach. Old McDonald’s Farm in Hounsfield has been open since June, only by appointment.

Owner Julia Robbins said Friday she twice submitted a plan for the opening and its safety procedures to county officials but never heard back.

The owners thought guests needed to get outdoors and experience some animal therapy in a safe environment, she said.

Allowing a maximum of 50 guests a day, the farm is getting between 25 and 40 guests per day, all by appointment.

“I think people are enjoying themselves,” she said.

Just outside of Chittenango in Madison County, the Wild Animal Park, a privately-owned zoo that features animals including zebras, lions, giraffes and camels on 14 acres, opened a few weeks ago, only offering a drive through car safari.

Owner Jeff Taylor said that visitors must stay in their vehicles to view the animals. Next week, the facility will open to its regular summertime hours, with the hopes that the state moves forward with Phase IV.

Both Old McDonald’s Farm and the Wild Animal Park are not complying with the state rules, Mr. Gray said.

The Control Room, which meets every day, advises to obey the state guidance, he said.

Once Phase IV happens, Boldt Castle, Singer Castle on Dark Island, the Antique Boat Museum and Enchanted Forest Water Safari in Old Forge can open.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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