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When 3-year-old Atlas McComb turned the corner and caught sight of the elephants — his favorite animal — he squealed so loudly that the monkeys nearby turned their heads. “So big, so big,” he said, pointing his finger.
Not far behind him at Utah’s Hogle Zoo were his parents, Eric and Sarah. They were a little less excited about the animals than their son, to be sure. But they were just as happy to be there with him, especially because it was outside and away from home.
“We just had to get out,” said Eric McComb with a laugh. “We were desperate.”
On Saturday, the little family of three went to the zoo for the first day it was back open since the coronavirus pandemic started.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has lifted some restrictions for recreation and amusement, moving the state’s risk assessment from “red” to “orange” and allowing some businesses to reopen. For many, this weekend was the first chance to go someplace other than the living room sofa after seven weeks of staying at home.
“We needed a break,” added Sarah McComb.
It wasn’t completely a return to normal, but it was close. Visitors could still ooh and aah at the lions and giraffes. And many snapped pictures as the polar bear jumped into a pool.
But the loosened rules and the bit of fun also came as the state reported three more deaths Saturday from the coronavirus, raising the total to 49.
Two of those new deaths were from Utah County. One was a woman older than age 85 who was hospitalized. The other was a man between 65 and 84, according to the Utah Department of Health.
The third was a woman from Salt Lake County. She was older than 85 and had an underlying medical condition.
Salt Lake County now has the most deaths in the state — a total of 30 — and the most positive cases — 2,609 — even as facilities there, including the zoo, begin to reopen.
Overall, the number of new cases statewide rose by 153 on Saturday. There are now 4,981 positive cases. That’s a 3.1% increase from Friday. There have been 15 more hospitalizations, too, putting the total at 418.
For visitors at the zoo Saturday, even as they looked for a break, the pandemic was still obviously top of mind. Nearly everyone wore face masks — some in colorful animal prints. They were directed along a one-way path with green arrows on the cement that guided them while signs urged them not to crowd with other people.
One read: “Lions and tigers and bears stay their length from others.” Another was written in chalk inside the savanna enclosure and said, “6 ft. apart.”
The zoo’s entrance was also moved to avoid pushing big groups of people together. And patrons had to get their tickets online in advance. The McComb family got there when it opened at 9 a.m. All guests were asked to try to keep their visit to two hours or less.
“It helps keep the flow,” said Steve Burns, president and CEO of Hogle Zoo, wearing a mask with zebras and pandas on it.
Additionally, the park limited guests entering to 200 people every half-hour. But far fewer than that showed up. And for the most part, the parking lot sat unfilled and some places within the park were empty.
“Still, if we need to adjust that capacity lower at any point, we would do that,” Burns added.
Sarah and Eric McComb followed those rules as they chased Atlas around the zoo as he spotted sea lions and what he thought were pandas — but which were actually black and white monkeys. The toddler giggled at the mistake.
Travis and Ghazal Palmer brought their three daughters, Ellie, Hannah and Samantha.
“We figured this would be a good experiment,” Ghazal Palmer said, to test getting out of the house. “It’s been a long seven weeks.”
The little girls wore pink face masks, and 7-year-old Ellie named off her favorite animals: “I have a lot: cheetahs and elephants and red pandas and doggies.” Hannah, 6, played with her mittens, which she wore to be safe.
“Hey, Daddy, I see a peacock!” she shouted at Travis.
The playgrounds, train and carousel remained closed. And the iconic animal-shaped drinking fountains were roped off.
Staff walked around with buckets of disinfectant. Sanitizer stations had been added throughout the zoo. And signs cautioned on railings and exhibits, “For your safety, do not touch.”
With similar restrictions, other businesses across the state reopened, too, primarily cosmetic stores and hair salons. Down the street from the zoo, University Barbershop allowed in one person at a time for a haircut and required masks.
Bill Wellington, 64, walked out of the shop in the morning with the first trim he’s had in months.
“I feel pretty good,” he said. He smiled big with his tan hair combed and pushed back over his ears.
The barber, Jesse Young, has been working there for about a year and wishes the state would’ve held off a little longer before allowing places like the shop to reopen. The doors were unlocked for the first time Saturday, and he helped three customers before noon.
He wants people like Wellington to look and feel good. But he’s worried about the virus spreading.
“It’s scary,” Young added. “We’re taking precautions. That’s all we can do.”
Some restaurants opened up for dining-in again on Friday. As as the weather improves — including a nice and sunny day to stroll around town and the zoo Saturday — the fear for some business owners is that more people will come out even as a second wave of the pandemic is almost assured.
So far, 117,804 Utahns have now been tested. That’s 5,246 more tests than the previous day. And some areas are still seeing large spikes, including hard-hit San Juan County, which jumped from 47 to 78 cases between Friday and Saturday.
The state, though, has said testing more and tracking down where the virus has spread will be crucial to opening up even more facilities beyond the zoo and barbershops.