The Irvine Park Zoo in Chippewa Falls opened two weeks ago, but this year’s occasion was subdued by COVID-19. Many exhibits are open as in years past, but some aspects are closed or lessened, including the petting zoo, welcome center, aviary and pasture.

According to Dick Hebert, director of Chippewa County parks, recreation and forestry, the petting zoo is closed because of the inability to enact physical distancing. As of now, there are no new birds in the aviary, nor are there seasonal pasture animals like antelope and watusi.

The coronavirus has also resulted in changes to zoo employees’ responsibilities. Workers maintain physical distancing when possible, clean surfaces and wear personal protective equipment including face masks. Hebert said those determinations were made after consulting with the Chippewa County emergency operation center and Chippewa County Health Department.

There are no temperature checks or COVID-19 tests for employees, but if workers show symptoms, they are instructed to stay home and receive guidance from health professionals. Hebert said extra caution is used when employees interact with tigers and hyenas. A tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York contracted COVID-19 in April. None of the animals at Irvine Park Zoo have been tested for coronavirus.

Last Thursday morning, a steady stream of visitors, including many families with young children, made their way through the zoo, which is part of more than 300 acres of Irvine Park. Five of those visitors were members of the Pipp family, who explored the park for the first time.

Paula and Steve Pipp live near Green Bay, while their son Alex Pipp and daughter-in-law Jessie Pipp reside in Minneapolis with their 20-month-old son Elias. They met in Chippewa Falls as a halfway point to visit the zoo and have an outdoor picnic in one of the park’s several shelters. (Another change is that park shelters are not accepting reservations and are now on a first-come, first-served basis).

The Pipps appreciated the various options for a child and adults.

“It’s nice that you can go at your own pace,,” Jessie Pipp said. “There’s so much here … You can go to the playground, you can go walk around. I think that’s a really neat aspect of this place, that it’s not just a zoo.”

The family expressed slight health concerns but felt safe overall in the spacious outdoor environment.

“There’s some hesitancy of touching doorknobs and gates and park benches,” Jessie Pipp said. “It’s trying to keep your distance and touch as little as possible, but it’s also really hard with a toddler who touches everything.”

Hebert said visitors like the Pipps have largely followed the zoo directions and recommendations, which include physical distancing. He added that it is challenging to keep areas like the petting zoo closed, but he has been impressed with the employees’ ability to shift responsibilities and adapt.

COVID-19 has presented additional labor challenges, though. For parks, recreation and forestry as a whole, the department would usually have around 50 seasonal employees, mostly local teenagers and young adults. This year that number is closer to five.

“We can’t offer them their summer jobs that they were expecting to get, and I know it’s hard for them to find a summer job right now,” Hebert said. “That’s been frustrating.”

The zoo opened on Memorial Day and closes on Labor Day. The Chippewa Falls Swimming Pool and Irvine Park Splash Pad are currently closed as well because of the inability to enforce physical distancing.

After consulting with county health officials, Hebert said his department will likely make final determinations later this month whether to open the pool, Splash Pad and exhibits this summer or keep them closed for the year.

“If we can’t open up by early July, I don’t think if it’s worth the time and effort to open up,” Hebert said. “It takes a minimum of two weeks to open up these facilities, so we’re looking at probably a mid-June date where we need to make a decision for the summer.”

Hebert said one of the most frustrating aspects is the uncertainty hanging over everything.

“We want to be good public servants and we want to be able to direct and help people, and it’s challenging,” Hebert said. “Usually we have answers. It’s been challenging not to have answers and to not know what’s going to happen next and what the future holds … Some people get frustrated, and I don’t blame them and I feel bad that we can’t provide more information or concrete scheduling, but everything is so topsy-turvy and up in the air.”

Despite limitations, Irvine Park Zoo has reopened, and Chippewa County officials will make further decisions regarding outdoor attractions in the weeks ahead.