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With thermal cameras, hand sanitizers on deck, Kalamazoo's Air Zoo reopens to the public

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The Air Zoo is reopening to the public Monday, July 12, 2020, with some exhibits closed off, but lots of cleaning and other safety measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. (WWMT/Ray Hole)

Closed since the end of March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Kalamazoo Air Zoo is clearing the general public for landing Monday, July 13, 2020.

After a two-week soft opening for Air Zoo members, during which staff tested new safety measures, the Air Zoo is ready to welcome the public back.

The changes are visible from the moment visitors walk in the door, as staff members offer hand sanitizer and signs list reminders of the governor's mandatory mask order. Before purchasing a ticket visitors will be scanned by a thermal imaging camera screening, which will check body temperature.

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Most of the more hands-on, high-touch exhibits have curtains draped around them with signs reading, "Because we care about your safety, this activity is temporary closed." The few hands-on exhibits that are still open have bottles of hand sanitizer on them along with signs that say, "This exhibit contains interactives disinfected throughout the day. If uncomfortable with touch-based use , please enjoy with your eyes."

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In compliance with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive orders, The Air Zoo is also unable to operate its rides, theater space, and flight simulators.

"Museums in general are known as safe spaces in the community and so we have done everything we can to ensure that when people come back in here, to this inspirational, educational place with over a hundred airplanes and spacecraft that they can feel safe and go about having fun with their families and really experiencing everything the Air Zoo has to offer just like before." said Troy Thrash, Air Zoo president and CEO.

Even with some of the most popular exhibits currently closed , there is still plenty to do and see.

Thrash said they have recently opened a few new exhibits such as Alien Worlds and Androids. The new exhibit is all about humanity exploring space with robots while giving visitors an up close look at some of pop culture's most famous robots, including Star War's BB-8 and R2-D2.

While the Air Zoo has had to close its campus through the COVID-19 shut down, museum staff have continued a online version of the summer camp programs.

"Our summer camps over the last five years have grown from about 250 kids to almost 750 so we wanted to make sure we didn't miss a beat this year," Thrash said. "So we have taken the best of all of the hands-on physics and chemistry and biology and astronomy that we do here, we built those classes into kits that we either have parents pick up or we send out to the homes of kids."

"Each week, we have young people doing hands-on science experiments in real time on the computer with one of our educators," Thrash said.

While they have been able to keep the summer camps going, the Air Zoo has taken major losses. Thrash said having to close to the public will end up costing the Air Zoo close to a million dollars. Despite that huge number, Thrash said, they have some really big things on the horizon .

"For example, in December we are expecting to become the first non-government museum to be able to showcase an F-117 Nighthawk, stealth fighter," Thrash said.

In the meantime, Thrash said he is excited to see kids and their families come in to learn and be inspired.

"Even though it can't be hands on, that kind of experiential learning is something that the kids have been missing and I know they are longing for," he said. "So we're excited for those families to get back here and get back to learning and being inspired at the Air Zoo."