After standing empty for more than three months, the Tennessee Aquarium’s galleries will soon echo with the laughter and excited chatter of guests once again.
The aquarium will begin a phased reopening to the public with exclusive opportunities for members beginning June 12-14. The Aquarium will then close for a few days to ensure new processes and safety protocols are operating seamlessly before reopening to the general public June 18 — 96 days after voluntarily closing on March 14 to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
During the closure, home-bound “digital visitors” flocked to the aquarium’s social channels and website for much-needed distraction and entertainment. They engaged with animals and husbandry experts through daily Facebook Live presentations, a stable of six always-online webcams, curated educational content and more.
But when it comes to creating lifelong memories and strengthening a sense of connection to the natural world, nothing compares to being face to face with the aquarium’s living collection, says President and CEO Keith Sanford.
“Our temporary closure was in the best interest of our community and our Aquarium family,” Mr. Sanford says. “We have worked meticulously on a phased reopening plan that is aligned with all health guidance.”
“Millions of visitors have experienced unforgettable moments here, and we’re excited to welcome guests back so they can relax and enjoy all we have to offer.”
To ensure guests' health and comfort, the aquarium’s reopening plan incorporates many essential changes to the visitor experience.
· After reopening, all tickets will have a scheduled time to enter the building and must be purchased online in advance from tnaqua.org/welcomeback. Blocks of up to 75 guests will be allowed to enter every 30 minutes, limiting attendance to about 20 percent of capacity each day.
· A block of timed-entry tickets will also be set aside each day for members. These must also be reserved (for free) online in advance of their visit.
· Aquarium visits will now begin in the River Journey building and move in one direction, continuing through the Ocean Journey building. Staff members will be stationed along this touring path to answer questions and to prevent bunching up in narrower spaces.
· In the interest of minimizing contact and maintaining physical distancing, dive shows and other programming have been temporarily halted. For similar reasons, some interactive elements and all pop-up tanks will be unavailable as will the Butterfly Garden in Ocean Journey and the Lake Sturgeon touch tank in River Journey. The IMAX 3D Theater and Ocean Journey gift shop will also remain closed for the time being.
· Rotating doors will not be in use. Instead, newly installed motion sensors on handicap-accessible doors will provide touchless movement between galleries.
· Housekeeping staff will be focusing sanitizing efforts on commonly touched surfaces such as handrails, elevators and touchable displays. During the closure, dozens of hand-sanitizing stations also were installed, more than tripling the previous number of dispensers.
· Guests are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings. All staff members are required to wear masks while working and undergo a health screening — including having their temperature taken — before starting their shift.
· Early bird entry will be offered every morning from 9-10 a.m. for individuals with special health concerns. During this special entry timeslot, all guests will be required to wear a mask.
· No sick employees will be allowed to enter the building. Guests are similarly encouraged to contact a visitor service representative to reschedule their visit if they or a member of their party feel unwell.
· Outside food and beverage will not be permitted, and water fountains will be non-operational. Guests are allowed to bring a water bottle for use in the touchless refill stations located in both buildings.
These measures were incorporated based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and are aligned with state and local reopening guidelines. Dr. Mark Anderson, an infectious disease specialist from CHI Memorial Hospital, has also approved the plans after touring and evaluating safety measures implemented throughout the Aquarium.
With these protocols in place, guests — whether family groups or single visitors — will have ample room to enjoy their experience and maintain physical distancing without worrying about over-crowding. In the weeks and months to come, aquarium leadership will continue monitoring the situation and will ease restrictions and reinstitute programs as health guidelines change.
Although some features of the aquarium will be limited upon reopening, guests will once more be able to appreciate the beauty of its living collection in person. From this perspective, they will find it hard not to be overawed by the charisma of Ring-tailed and Red-ruffed Lemurs, the placid drifting of toothy American Alligators and the stunning underwater acrobatics of River Otters and Gentoo Penguins.
In January, the aquarium declared 2020 as “The Year of the Turtle.” The latest addition to the aquarium’s exhibit path, the new Turtles of the World gallery, was a central pillar of that celebration. Unfortunately, the gallery officially opened on March 13, the day before the closure.
In a sense, then, the aquarium’s reopening is also a second chance to introduce the public to this stunning new collection of exhibits. Guests entering Turtles of the World will encounter five dynamic new habitats filled with a variety of turtle species from North America, Southeast Asia and Oceania. Assuming they can withstand the cuteness overload, they’ll also be able to peek in on a working turtle nursery caring for dozens of adorable hatchlings, many of them representing critically endangered species.
Whether it’s an all-new exhibit or a favorite haunt, guests will undoubtedly notice how pristine their surroundings are as they explore.
Immediately after closing to visitors on March 14, housekeeping staff and a fleet of deep-cleaning specialists from Servpro spent more than a week thoroughly scouring the River Journey and Ocean Journey buildings. Throughout the closure, maintenance crews also undertook a laundry list of update and refurbishing projects. This concerted upkeep effort now has the Aquarium looking better than at any other time during its 28-year stint on the riverfront.
When it opened in 1992, the aquarium represented the fulfillment of a community dreaming of a way to revitalize itself. In the decades since, the aquarium has continued to serve as a pillar of the Chattanooga community while attracting a truly global audience to the city.
The spring of 2020 has been a trying chapter for the aquarium, but with such a history of influence, support and success to look back on, it’s hard not be optimistic about the future, Mr. Sanford says.
“As a nonprofit organization, this crisis has caused the aquarium deep financial hardships. But, our team’s willingness to work together to tackle these challenges has been inspiring,” he says. “I look forward to safely reopening and continuing our mission of making people feel more connected with the natural world.”
For more information about the aquarium’s reopening plan and safety protocols or to reserve a timed-entry ticket, visit tnaqua.org/welcomeback.