Michigan animal park's reopening draws crowds amid COVID-19
There was no shortage of guests at Boulder Ridge Wild Animal Park as the Alto facility reopened over the weekend despite Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s ban on non-essential businesses during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The park opened Friday, roughly two weeks before the governor’s order is set to expire, an order within which the manager believes the park is still operating.
“We are considered a recreational activity, so technically, it is not a violation of the order,” said park manager Josh Baker.
The park is one of several businesses in Michigan bucking the continued stay-home order even at the risk of law enforcement action.
Attorney General Dana Nessel's office said Monday any potential enforcement of the executive order would fall within the jurisdiction of local police.
Kent County sheriff's deputies took an initial report on the violation of the stay-home order and submitted it to the prosecutor's office, said Lt. Joel Roon.
"Our goal is to gain compliance by educating before issuing a citation whenever possible," he said.
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said he had not yet received the report as of Tuesday afternoon.
Boulder Ridge had been set to reopen May 1 but the park remained closed until one of the executive orders extending the stay-home restrictions was set to expire May 15. At that point, park leaders felt they could open safely, even though Whitmer extended her order until May 28.
“We already had everything in place to open that day and everything was set to go, so when it got extended, which kinda hurt, we just said, ‘Well, we’re going to risk it and go for it,’” Baker said.
Even those two weeks of lost business made a significant dent in the park’s bottom line, Baker said.
Park owner Dave Hoekstra estimated the park lost about $50,000 — 5% to 10% of its annual revenue — during the two-week closure.
If the park had remained closed until May 28, the park would have lost between $125,000 and $150,000, Hoekstra estimated.
“Normally we’re full of school groups Monday through Friday, so with schools being shut down, we normally have five to seven schools here a day with groups from each school of 50 to 150,” Baker said. “So it was a huge financial hit for us because we’re only open six months out of the year.”
Nonetheless, Baker was happy with the turnout over the weekend. He estimated the park saw fewer than 600 people total Saturday, with roughly 400 in the park in the middle of the day. Capacity is 2,000 people.
“We’re proud of the people who came out to support us these last couple days, it’s been really great and they’ve all been very cooperative and understanding,” he said.
The park has placed six-foot markers on the ground in certain places, Baker said, disinfected after every safari ride, and placed hand sanitizer around the park. Visitors are not required to wear face masks, but the park sells them in the gift shop.
For employees, face masks are optional, as is coming in to work.
Additionally, the park closed the kids' train and concessions and is allowing visitors to bring in their own food.