Although officials from the Hattiesburg Zoo were hopeful to have that facility reopen to the public on May 29, that date is being pushed back a couple weeks, in part because of weather – and with the hope that some of the outdoor restrictions in place because of COVID-19 will be lifted at some point in early June.
Zoo staff will take that time to observe the measures that are being taken by certain other businesses as they reopen, including what the criteria and protocol would be to bring the public back.
"We want to be careful; we don't want to get into a situation where we're policing how certain people may feel, as our guests, about what they need to do," said Rick Taylor, executive director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, which operates the zoo. "Obviously, I think we'll do social distancing and some of that.
"One area of concern is that ... we're all for masks, but we're hitting some 90s (temperature-wise), and that's tough. So all things for us just said to give it a couple more weeks to let things settle down, let this weather pass, and then I think we'll be in a position to open."
Taylor and his staff also are playing it safe when it comes to the commission's other facilities, including the Saenger Theater, the African-American History Museum, Lake Terrace Convention Center and the Eureka School Museum. That goes in particular for a space like the theater, where attendees may be seated only inches away from each other in normal times.
"So that we see proceeding deliberately very, very slowly," Taylor said. "What we are seeing in the industry in that respect is a few cities doing very much spaced-out seating in their theaters ... and in a place like Houston, you can charge a much more robust price and deal with the fact that you've got 25 percent or a third of your normal capacity.
"For us at the Saenger, we've got a thousand seats, so 25 percent is 250 people. It's hard to make an act work for that, so we're taking a very phased approach, very slow and methodical. So the zoo is the one we need to get up and going."
Unfortunately for the commission, the COVID-19 pandemic hit right at its peak season, as springtime is usually the most profitable at the convention center, zoo and the theater. The zoo in particular has lost 46 percent of its annual earned income.
"It's not uncommon; all the zoos are kind of like that, but we make the money that helps us through the rest of the year in the spring," Taylor said. "In winter, people are pent up, they're in their house, but then spring comes and everything's pretty, it's cool, it's pleasant and the sun's out, and that's where you make your money. We lost that peak period."
Interestingly enough, the zoo's February income was 75 percent higher than February of last year, even though the facility was closed during the week for winter hours.
"So we really had a bang-up February, and then on this fiscal year – which for us began October 1 – the zoo was running 44 percent higher than the prior year," Taylor said. "So it was shaping up to be a banner year – we've got projects coming to completion, like the giraffe exhibit – and then this pandemic hit.
"It's lasted now over a historically peak period of time, so we've got a lot of challenges ahead of us. We're going to make it through. We're going to get the zoo open first, and then we're going to proceed very, very deliberately on opening our other buildings."
On the other hand, June, July and August are typically slow in the convention world before picking up again in the fall. That being the case, officials are optimistic that some of the current restrictions may be eased by that time, allowing some customers to come back into facilities like the convention center and theater.
"We're mass-gathering facilities, and we were the first ones to have to shut down," Taylor said. "You can't do much of a show for 50 people, so that's kind of where we are."
At the same time, officials aren't necessarily in a rush to open the convention center and theater because of the lack of events. In addition, three other key criteria are being looked at before those facilities open: whether the venue is ready to open, the readiness of convention planners and whether delegates to conventions are able or willing to travel.
"They may not be able to fly, they may choose not to travel, they may not be willing to stay in a hotel room at this point," Taylor said. "And then you have the question of whether your company is going to send someone.
"I know we're looking at it and saying we have people who are professionals ... but we just said financially, not this year. So is reopening the convention center a sure thing, or are we, in calling back people, taking on costs that may not be able to be offset."