SEATTLE — When Woodland Park Zoo reopened in July under COVID-19 conditions, the venue kept its indoor exhibits shuttered and adopted a strict requirement that all visitors older than 5 wear masks.

For the Seattle zoo’s animals, employees and most visitors, the policy provided protection from the pandemic. For some visitors with disabilities, however, the requirement erected a barrier — with some families turned away. The timing couldn’t have been worse for people with disabilities trying to remain active, because many other recreational options were still closed down, due to the coronavirus.

“Across the state, people were bumping up against rules (related to masks) — and that was happening at the zoo, as well,” said Robin Tatsuda, executive director at The Arc of King County, which serves people with intellectual and development disabilities.

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“We were getting calls and emails from different people in the community with concerns about the rules being discriminatory,” Tatsuda added. “It was frustrating for everyone.”

The zoo’s leaders were presented with a challenge that many other businesses and venues will likely grapple with in the coming months, as the region slowly recovers from the pandemic. They wanted to guard against COVID-19 transmission, but they also wanted to welcome everyone.

“Balancing those needs was an extraordinary challenge for us,” said Alejandro Grajal, the zoo’s president.

After consulting with The Arc and other advocates, the zoo decided to reserve two hours each Wednesday for people who have disabilities that make it hard for them to wear masks. The new schedule began last month.

“Huge benefit”

Normally, the zoo is jammed on sunny September afternoons with curious kids and baby strollers. But since July the venue has admitted only 2,000 visitors at a time (an estimated 25% of the zoo’s capacity), requiring them to buy tickets for certain time blocks.

So the zoo wasn’t crowded last month, particularly during Sept. 30’s “accessibility admission” period, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. So, John Kemmling and his son, Christian, were able to watch a hippo wallow in a muddy pond all on their own. They chose to visit on a Wednesday afternoon because 14-year-old Christian has a disability and doesn’t always keep his mask on.

“This week (the weather) was so nice, we thought this would be good to get him out of the house,” said Kemmling, 58, guiding his son by the arm.

There are various reasons why some people with disabilities have trouble complying with mask requirements, Tatsuda said. Some are physically unable to wear masks, while others struggle with the sensory experience.

“You have a mask covering your nose, tugging on your ears. For some people, that just becomes overwhelming,” she said. “That’s especially common for people with autism. Also, some people with intellectual disabilities might not understand the point (of wearing a mask). They’re not going to keep it on.”

Katy Simon didn’t realize she had signed up for a special time until she and her three kids arrived at the zoo. But she was relieved to hear about it, because her son, Isaac, has asthma. He doesn’t like wearing a mask.

“I can do it and I can breathe but it’s a little scary and difficult,” the 11-year-old said.

People with relevant disabilities are exempt from the mask regulations set by Washington and King County public health officials. Still, most people with those disabilities take care to avoid participating in COVID-19 transmission, Tatsuda noted. That can involve staying at home, where “loneliness and depression” may set in.

“We already tend to be an isolated community,” Tatsuda said. “Being able to go somewhere and not worry that people are going to yell at you about your mask is really a huge benefit.”

“So many disabilities are invisible, and many times people forget that. They only think about wheelchair users or people with canes. It’s important to not make assumptions about each other.”

Walking around outside, with no crowds, Simon felt comfortable pocketing her mask. She called the accessibility admission policy a “welcome surprise.”

New challenge

Reserving time for people without masks wasn’t simple, Grajal said. Some employees who interact with visitors were understandably worried about being exposed to COVID-19, and they raised concerns.

The zoo is using a skeleton crew for the accessibility period, allowing most employees to remain out of the way, Grajal said. Those employees who do interact with visitors are wearing plastic shields and masks, he said.

Another issue: The zoo, which is heavily subsidized by the city and the county, is losing money by operating at 25% capacity most of the time and below that on Wednesday afternoons, Grajal said.

“Two hours might not sound like a lot but we’re teetering on the brink of economic solvency, like many cultural institutions,” he said. “We’re not breaking even. We’re going to end up losing about $12 million this year.”

There was also the possibility that people with anti-mask views, rather than disabilities, could try to visit during the set-aside time. A few zoo visitors in July claimed they were exempt from wearing masks on dubious grounds, Grajal recalled.

But the very real need to accommodate people with disabilities was more important than the possibility that some people might try to take advantage of the opportunity, Grajal said. There was no evidence of abuse during the accessibility admission periods last month, anyway — only appreciative families and some visitors without disabilities who wound up at the zoo on a Wednesday afternoon by accident.

Megan Ingram and her 8-year-old daughter, Josephine, were happy to stroll through the zoo almost alone, with Josephine especially excited to see a jaguar. “This is a treat,” said Ingram, 46.

Tatsuda said her organization appreciates what the zoo has done. Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma has adopted a similar policy, she noted, encouraging other venues to think ahead of time about how to provide access.

“They both reached out” and asked what to do, Tatsuda said. “There’s a mandate in our community — nothing about us without us.”

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