Anchored in Place

Even while closed to the public, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s utility bill to keep the seawater system running alone is $3 million a year. Executive Director Julie Packard calls the deficit “dire.”

When the Monterey Bay Aquarium is finally allowed to reopen during the Covid-19 pandemic, Executive Director Julie Packard says it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say a visit would be safer than a trip to the grocery store. Aquarium officials have at the ready a rigorous safety plan that includes limiting the numbers of visitors and employees inside, timed entry tickets and a one-way route.

“Our plan, in our opinion, would make us one of the safer places to be if you’re out and about in Covid times,” Packard says.

For now the Aquarium doors remain shut while they continue spending around $1 million a month on animal care. The famous jellyfish that star in the Aquarium’s live cams with more than 127,000 YouTube subscribers, need to continue to be cultivated in a delicate process of in vitro fertilization to keep regenerating the short-lived species.

Packard says they’re projecting a $55 million deficit this budget year, a situation she calls “dire.” The Aquarium has laid off 205 employees since March, and 11 are furloughed. (A spokesperson declines to say what the future holds if the closure continues.)

Back when everyone thought SIP would be short-lived, Aquarium staff crafted the safety protocols in anticipation of an earlier reopening. An announcement was made in early July that it would open its doors on July 13, with a media day and special membership event planned in advance of that date. Then indoor dining and attractions closed again.

Since then, Packard and her colleagues at other California aquariums and zoos have lobbied state officials to allow them to reopen with limited visitors. In the meantime, they’ve watched as the state allowed for the modified opening of malls, tattoo shops, nail and hair salons and other businesses. “All we’re asking for is parity with other types of businesses, shopping malls for example,” Packard says.

Even under a Nov. 16 announcement by Newsom that most of California’s counties are moving back to the most restrictive Purple Tier, shopping malls, including swap meets, may open at 25-percent capacity, with common areas and food courts closed.

Packard is not optimistic about reopening soon but she says conversations with the state are ongoing. She testified before the state Assembly Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media Committee on Oct. 14 about the state’s tiering system. About two weeks ago Aquarium officials spoke with California Secretary of Health and Human Services Mark Ghaly “about additional measures we could take that would make them more comfortable with some level of opening,” she says. “With no ticket revenue it’s a huge hit. Even if we reopen at reduced capacity it will be a while before we get in the black again.”

There have been some bright spots: The Aquarium’s wildly popular animal cams have expanded their reach across the world. It’s also brought in some donations. The Aquarium has raised around $15 million.

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