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Crowded Pittsburgh Zoo Makes Some Visitors Feel Unsafe

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA News
Two elephants hang out by the water at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium on June 10, 2015.

Several people say they felt unsafe during recent visits to the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium due to a lack of COVID-19 precautions.

Last week saw great weather and it appears many Pittsburghers took advantage of that with a trip to the zoo. But people report that the park's staff did little to make sure patrons were adhering to mitigation practices — such as wearing masks or maintaining physical distance.

“We couldn't keep a foot away from other human beings, let alone six feet. By the time we were at the second and third exhibit, I would say half of the people weren't wearing their masks,” said White Oak resident Teresa Trich, who visited the zoo with her daughters on Sunday.

Trich said her family left soon after. Another Sunday zoo visitor told WESA he "fled" after it became too crowded a little before noon.

Jaime Szoszorek, the zoo’s vice president of external relations, said the East End attraction follows “all guidelines set forth” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that it has a staff member, “whose sole responsibility is to move throughout the park all day reminding visitors of our mask policy, which is masks are required in both indoor and outdoor locations.”

Trich recalls hearing occasional PA announcements reminding zoo guests to maintain physical distance and wear masks, “But I didn't see one employee tell anyone, ‘Hey, you might want to wait here for this group to go by or, hey, could you pull your mask up.’”

Sunday’s reportedly packed park does not appear to be a one-time event. Three other people who each visited the zoo on seperate days all recalled large crowds. This includes Jane Pohl of Allison Park, who said she left the park soon after arriving with her mother and daughters on Wednesday, March 17 because she felt unsafe.

“It would not be difficult for the zoo to encourage better mask compliance,” said Pohl, noting that signs were posted but that she didn't witness any employees directing patrons to wear masks. 

Pennsylvania requires people to wear masks while in public, both indoors and outdoors. Zoo rules require masks for visitors over 24 months of age.

Current state mitigation orders require that entertainment venues operate at 50% occupancy. Because most of the zoo’s exhibits are outdoors it is unclear how the rule translates. The zoo said it limits capacity, but it did not answer a question about how many people it permits at a given time, and how that number compares to pre-pandemic rules. 

When the zoo reopened last summer after a long pandemic-imposed closure, it implemented timed ticketing, a crowd control strategy that many other local attractions have also employed. However, the zoo is no longer offering timed ticketing.

Pohl and Trich both noted that people can be belligerent about wearing masks. Trich said she was even taunted by other zoo visitors after she told her five-year-old daughter to pull up her face covering.

“They purposely invaded our space to be like, ‘Well, if we walk slower than maybe we’ll have time to pull up our mask,’ like just mocking the fact I told her to be safe,” she said.

The state has placed the onus on private businesses to enforce COVID mitigation compliance among patrons, but it can be difficult or even dangerous for employees to do so. Dozens of videos have surfaced during the pandemic of customers yelling at or ridiculing employees of stores. Last May, a Michigan Family Dollar security guard was shot and killed after telling a costumer to put a mask on.

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