Oakland Zoo embraces coronavirus changes, visitor experience a cut above pre-pandemic days

KTVU's Gasia Mikaelian went back to the Oakland Zoo earlier this week to see the many changes that have been made -- all in the name of safety during the pandemic.

A trip to the zoo now takes some planning, but once we got in, it was one of the loveliest afternoons we'd spent, since the pandemic began. We'll start you off with one of the highlights.

Two grizzly bears, pawing at each other in the water, just feet away from delighted visitors! After months with no visitors, the bears had an audience, and they made the most of it.

"For us it's one step back towards normal. And even the animals are glad the public is here, to see the activity at the zoo, absolutely thrilled to have them back," said Dr. Joel Parrott with the Oakland Zoo

Visitors have to buy tickets online ahead of time for timed entry. Once you're in, you can stay as long as you want.

The zoo is only allowing a third of the usual number of visitors each day, and you are required to wear a mask.

When it comes to the more popular exhibits, the zoo is asking visitors to be mindful of social distancing.

"We have to make sure when guests are here we ask that they don't congregate. What we really don't want is for people to clump up," said Parrott.

The gondola to the California Trail exhibit is open, that's how we got up to see the bison, once we tore ourselves away from the grizzly bears.

The indoor exhibits at the zoo are not open, and the play areas are off limits.

"All the high touch areas, rides, the train, carousel, and the play areas in California trail. Hopefully as things loosen up, we'll be able to open up different parts of the zoo," said Parrott.

Now, it's all about the animals. And in some ways, our visit this week was the best visit we've ever had.

No crowds, workers at every turn with a welcoming smile, or squirt of hand sanitizer for those who wanted it.

We could tell that everyone was glad to see the Oakland Zoo back open to visitors.

Like thousands of others, I grew up going to the Oakland Zoo. Our family had a membership for years. We let that go recently after life became packed with school, and other activties.

But Parrott makes a great case for joining the zoo -- for a little grown up getaway.
"Just because the kids are grown up doesn't mean the adults can't come back and just enjoy. There's something settling I think about being around wildlife. Being around the animals, in a natural setting," said Parrott.

The pathways around the zoo are wide enough to allow for social distancing and two-way traffic. And of course, you're in the open air.

We saw workers disinfecting the open-air gondola right before we got in, then again when we got out. There are outdoor dining options, lots of grab-and-go carts with prepackaged food and drinks.