An improvement in COVID-19 statistics across the state and loosening of the restrictions that resulted have prompted Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge to reopen, but in phases.
For phase one, Cedar Run executives welcomed patrons into the nature center for the first time in four months on July 8. Nature trails on the Medford property and hospital were open throughout most of the four-month quarantine, with limited public interaction.
Director of Operations Mike O’Malley explained the center has shortened hours — 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends — for staff to sanitize and prepare the area.
“We’re not going to have the bathrooms or our reptile room open during phase one,” O’Malley said.
The playroom and any other high-risk areas promoting touching and close quarters are shuttered until the next phase, made possible by guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the state and Burlington County health departments.
No one will be allowed in the nature center without wearing a mask, O’Malley firmly stated. Instead of turning people away, staff will ask visitors to either wait outside for their group or proceed to the outdoor nature trail.
Mask wearing is encouraged on the trail, but not enforced.
Employee discretion is used for determining how many visitors may be inside the nature center at any time.
“We are limited on the amount of space inside, so we will have extra support, with volunteers and such to control and communicate with visitors outside to be patient,” the director explained. “We are also creating one- way traffic in and outside of the building.”
O’Malley and Rehabilitation Director Lori Swanson feared the wildlife center would close permanently because of a lack of funds from educational programs and donations. But an influx of donations and the refuge’s financials have helped it stay afloat for now.
“Unfortunately, it’s not a done deal,” O’Malley warned. “Throughout this whole process, Cedar Run, like any other organization, is going to need continued support. We’re reopening, but that doesn’t mean we’ll have a crowd of 100 people in here paying admission.
“We’re doing some education programs here and there, but we’re not where we were a year ago.”
Summer camp Director Rachel Ndeto mentioned that the summer camp has reopened, but at half capacity. Camps have 10 children instead of 20 and each child’s daily health history is recorded to ensure no one has contracted COVID.
Ndeto noted she has followed every regulation from the state health department to protect children and staff. Every camp counselor is equipped with hand sanitizer and hand-washing stations are installed throughout the camping area.
“Everyone is required to wear a mask upon entry,” Ndeto said. “There are some cases where the kids can remove them when they are far away from other people, and that’s fine.”
Erin Rounds, director of education, added that camp sign-ups mostly included children new to the refuge. She encouraged adults who want a guided tour to reach out to their new nature club to learn about the center’s animals.
Injured or ill animals are still accepted at the on-site hospital, but members of the public can only interact with staff through a glass window and are instructed to place an animal in the box for care. Staff has to sanitize and prepare the hospital before accepting an animal.
“Some animals can (get COVID-19) and they’ve been most … focusing on zoo animals and primates, but none of the species we’re working with we’ve been told can get it,” Swanson shared.
“I don’t think it’s a concern for us, and most of our enclosures you cannot get inside of.”
If any person tests positive, the county health department is contacted and the refuge follows its guidelines on how to proceed. Nature center executives have registered their excitement at again being operational, but they are reminding visitors to adhere to guidelines from the health agency while the pandemic is ongoing.
“The website has our most up-to-date protocols, but they can change depending on what the state and CDC are recommending,” O’Malley said. “We want to make sure the public knows we’re excited to be back, but please be patient with us. We’re learning too.”