Rockville residents Sarah Brunsmeier and Lance Davis explored an eerily quiet exhibit at the National Zoo September 8. In a park that would typically be packed with excited children clinging to animal enclosures and visitors from around the world, the two stood in a nearly empty area with small, masked groups at a distance.
The pair recently relocated to the area and were excited to again have the opportunity to explore the outdoor attractions at the Zoo. Brunsmeier and Davis casually chatted in masks, applying hand sanitizer before setting off to see the animals.
The precautions at the National Zoo (3001 Connecticut Ave NW) and the National Air and Space Museum’s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center (14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy) have been so successful and visitors so receptive that the Smithsonian is ready to reopen four more museums Sept. 18, including the American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Renwick Gallery.
Preparing for Your Visit
For over a century, the Smithsonian Institution has engaged locals and visitors alike with history, research and learning. Over the past several months, administrators have implemented a variety of changes to the visitor experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brunsmeier and Davis had to secure a pass for timed entry from the Zoo website. These are now required for all Smithsonian locations except the Renwick Gallery and may be reserved online for a specific time during the operating hours of each location. The passes are free of charge at all locations, and are designed to restrict the number of visitors on-site at one time. Parking for the National Zoo is available at a cost of 30 dollars per vehicle.
The Smithsonian sent the two an email with health screening the morning before the timed entry passes are valid. While guests are not required to sign or complete the questionnaire, it is a good reminder to check for symptoms of the virus.
Because it is an outdoor site, visits to the zoo are slightly different. In every other Smithsonian site, guests will be screened by security personnel. While bags of all sizes are permitted on the properties, the institution is asking guests to limit the number of bags they bring to the museums to maintain social distancing guidelines. Right now there are no places to check a bag or coat check at any of the Smithsonian sites.
At the Property
Brunsmeier and Davis have almost every exhibit to themselves, with the exception of the Giant Panda enclosure, as visitors are still eager to catch a glimpse of the baby panda, Mei Xiang, born August 21. While food vendors remain open, the outdoor food court is a ghost town with only a few small groups scattered far apart.
When COVID-19 hit in March, over 70 percent of the Zoo’s employees were considered essential workers and the staff were required to adapt quickly and efficiently to new safety measures. Director of the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute Steven Monfort told Hillrag in an interview that the Smithsonian and National Zoo have been working together to ensure staff and visitors are adequately protected.
“The safety and precautions that we had to take started initially with our own staff,” Montfort said. The Smithonsian implemented what Montfort called “common sense kinds of things,” including providing protective equipment and masks to employees, as well as implementing new protocols that would allow social distancing, frequent hand washing and for employees to easily stay home from work if sick.
Montfort praised the efforts of the staff as well as visitors for following the pandemic restrictions.
“There’s been no cases in Washington that have been traced back through contact tracing back to the zoo,” Montfort said. “We haven’t had any of our staff become infected with COVID.”
Brunemeier said she was surprised and impressed with how well other visitors were following the newly mandated restrictions of social distancing and wearing a face covering while at the Zoo.
“I haven’t really seen anybody blatantly ignoring the rules out here,” Brunsmeier said. “Everybody just wants to have fun. So might as well just do what they asked us to do.”
Future Opening Plans
Public Affairs official Alise Fisher spoke about the decisions to reopen the Zoo and Udvar-Hazy center and said these reopening plans will serve to inform how the other locations, reopening later this week, will begin to welcome back visitors.
“We’ve taken a deliberate, gradual approach to reopening the Smithsonian across the institution,” Fisher said. “We wanted to start very slowly and began with only these first two locations, in part because these are locations that lend themselves really well to social distancing and some of these other safety procedures that we need to put in place to ensure a safe experience for our visitors and our staff.”
Fisher said visitors should be conscious of the new regulations but excited about enjoying what the open locations have to offer to guests.
“(We’re) all in this together in terms of taking these precautions and making sure that we’re all safe,” Fisher said. “We’ve been really pleased to be able to start welcoming folks back safely and really love to see them back on site.”
Amid all of the newly implemented restrictions and uncertainty about the future, visitors are still finding ways to enjoy the smithsonian. Enjoying the quiet park with Brunmeier and copious amounts of hand sanitizer, Davis emphasized the importance of finding time for fun at his visit to the Zoo.
“I think people just need to do something that they enjoy right now,” Davis said. “And this is definitely one of those things.”
- The National Zoo and the Udvar-Hazey Center: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. everyday
- National Museum of African American History and Culture: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
- National Portrait Gallery: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
- American Art Museum: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
- Renwick Gallery: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
To learn more about the Smithsonian, the new COVID-19 policies and restrictions and to reserve tickets, visit (si.edu).
Sarah Payne is a History and Neuroscience student at The University of Michigan interning with HillRag. She writes for and serves as an assistant news editor for Michigan’s student newspaper, The Michigan Daily. You can reach her at [email protected].