MONTEREY, Calif. (KION) The Monterey Bay Aquarium once accommodated thousands of patrons every day, but due to the lockdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of visitors here since then has been zero.
The once crowded lobbies and ticket lines at the aquarium are now empty. The staircases that in their best of times saw people racing up and down to get a glimpse of the sea creatures now stand in silence.
What you do see are the fish and curious sea otters in their tanks, who have not seen as many faces as they did before the shutdown caused by the pandemic.
That is according to the few staff members roaming the halls as they carry on their work looking after the animals.
Kayla Campbell has worked at the aquarium for about a year and a half, and she describes what it is like to be at work with no visitors and the loss of hundreds of coworkers after a series of layoffs.
“It’s strange. It feels kind of lonely sometimes for sure,” says Campbell.
About 240 staff members had to be laid off because of the financial strain of the pandemic, which represents about 40 percent of the pre-pandemic workforce.
“This has been some of the hardest decisions that I’ve certainly ever had to make,” says Chief Operating Officer Cynthia Vernon.
“It didn’t hit me realistically until this last round of layoffs and so it’s been a real reality check. My husband and I were looking at homes in the peninsula, and we’re putting that decision on hold right now just because we don’t really know what the future holds,” says Campbell.
With no guests, the aquarium has gone from about a $90 million annual budget to a loss of $55 million in revenue in the last ten months.
Many changes had to be made to keep the aquarium clean and sanitized while cutting costs to maintain operations, such as purchasing sanitizers and cleaning products in bulk and opting for reusable cleaning items and cloth rags.
However, that is just one of the concerns.
“Even though we don’t have guests right now, we still need to use electricity to keep the animals healthy, to make sure that the water temperature is ideal to what they need in order to survive,” says Sustainability Manager Claudia Pineda Tibbs.
As Vernon explains, every dollar counts when it comes to keeping the animals thriving and healthy.
“Our operating expenses still continue to be about a million dollars per week. That’s taking care of animals, taking care of the building, paying the staff who we absolutely need here,” says Vernon.
Fortunately, the animals continue to thrive.
The aquarium also adapted to virtual changes in an effort to keep life at the aquarium going for its followers.
Live cams streaming the jellyfish and live kelp forest tanks proved to be a big hit, drawing in thousands of viewers from across the globe.
In addition, the aquarium’s Education Director, Jenny de la Hoz says over 70,000 children are registered for online learning programs designed to keep them engaged in their education.
But De la Hoz says nothing compares to being able to teach the kids in person.
“Growing up in an urban environment, I didn’t hear a lot of kids outside, but when I hear those kids outside it reminds me of my own childhood in some ways, things that I didn’t get to have but that I want this generation to have,” says De la Hoz.
A spokesperson with the Monterey Bay Aquarium says the aquarium has remained a big advocate for health and safety during the ongoing pandemic, even loaning one of their freezers to a local hospital to help store a supply of vaccines.
“People in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods are suffering disproportionately from the spread of infection,” says Public Affairs Director Barbara Meister.
The staff at the aquarium say they hope to open sometime around the summer, but even with no set reopening date in sight, the staff say they are preparing to open their doors to the public once again and are hopeful for a better tomorrow.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium staff say they are still in need of community support to continue their operations and caring for the animals.
To find out how you can help, visit the website here.