Forced to close for a second time, Quebec tourist attractions scramble to adapt

Many Quebec tourism attractions barely survived the spring lockdown and were just getting back on their feet when the second wave of COVID-19 hit and the government shut them down again.

With revenue, exhibitions, and renovations in limbo, more financial support may be needed

Two days after the Quebec Aquarium opened its multimillion-dollar polar bear enclosure to the public, the tourist attraction had to close because it is in a COVID-19 red zone. (Sépaq)

With attendance down by 40 per cent this summer, the Quebec Aquarium hoped the return of its resident polar bear, Eddy, would draw visitors during the slower months this fall.

For the last year-and-a-half, Eddy had been living at a polar bear refuge in Ontario while he waited for his new $7.5-million enclosure at the aquarium to be finished. On Tuesday, he made his public debut.

People who got a glimpse of him exploring his new digs were among a lucky few.

Two days later, the aquarium had to close its doors— along with bars, museums, casinos and cinemas located in Quebec's red zones.

The new restrictions, in place until at least Oct. 28, are intended to curb a troubling rise in community transmission of COVID-19.

The aquarium is now refunding tickets and had to temporarily lay off its students and part-time staff. Some full-time employees also had their hours reduced, said Elizabeth Tessier, the aquarium's director.

"We hope we'll be open on the 29th of October, but right now, considering what's going on, I'm not deciding when I'll be reopening," said Tessier.

Closure will have lingering financial impact

The aquarium's disappointment is shared by many.

At the end of September, Montreal's McCord Museum launched its new Christian Dior exhibition, which showcases some of the iconic fashion house's designs.

On its opening weekend, almost all the available tickets were snapped up, said Pascale Grignon, who is in charge of marketing for both the McCord and Stewart museums.

"Visitors were very, very enthusiastic about this exhibition," she said. "It's a shame actually."

Montreal's McCord Museum launched its Christian Dior exhibition last month. Visitors will now have to wait until the museum reopens at the end of October to see it. (Marilyn Aitken/McCord Museum)

Although Grignon understands the province is doing what it can to get the second wave of the virus under control, she's surprised museums were included in the list of closures.

"It's quite easy to keep two metres between everyone in a museum The masks are obviously obligatory," said Grignon, who isn't aware of any outbreaks traced back to Quebec museums. "Nobody is touching anything. It's actually very secure."

Some of the museum's activities and content will be shared online, but closing again is a financial blow.

In the spring, the McCord had to cancel both its Annual Ball and Sugar Ball, its two main fundraising events, said Grignon.

Since it reopened at the end of June, attendance has dropped to 15 to 20 per cent of its normal level.

Programming is already in place this year, but planning for next year could be tricky with so many unknowns about the virus.

"The financial impact will actually last for a lot longer than the actual months we are living right now," said Grignon.

Uncertain future

It's difficult to navigate so much uncertainty.

Known for its hands-on, interactive exhibits, the Montreal Science Centre had to quickly adapt when it reopened in mid-July, said Jean-Philippe Rochette, the public relations manager for the Old Port of Montreal.

To manage capacity, tickets could be purchased only online, capped at a maximum of 30 people every half hour. Instead of actually touching the interactive exhibits with their fingers, visitors had to use a stylus pen that could be disinfected afterward, he said.

Known for its hands-on, interactive exhibitions, the Montreal Science Centre had to limit attendance and boost cleaning protocols when it reopened in July after the first wave of COVID-19. (Montreal Science Centre)

In addition to cancelling its summer camps, the science centre lost a major chunk of revenue because it couldn't host events, which typically include everything from weddings to car shows.

"We host more than 200 events per year and all of a sudden it drops to zero," said Rochette.

When students returned to school, the Science Centre decided to close on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for the time being because attendance is only 20 per cent of what is was in 2019.

A dinosaur exhibition was planned for mid-October, but that's now cancelled.

"We're going to reopen, but what is our reopening going to be like?" said Rochette. "We don't know yet. We're in the unknown right now."

Financial help needed

For now, the Granby Zoo is in an orange alert zone, so it can still welcome visitors.

But it too had to limit attendance during the summer to about a quarter of what it normally does in order to meet social distancing and sanitary requirements.

"Last weekend, we were at about 2,000 maximum capacity, which is quite low, if you consider we are able to welcome about 8 to 10,000 people a day," said the zoo's CEO, Paul Gosselin.

The Granby Zoo has seen a 70 per cent drop in revenue this year due to COVID-19. Planned renovations to some of its buildings and habitats are now on hold. (Granby Zoo)

Visitors enjoyed a less crowded experience, but operationally, the zoo, which is a non-profit, took a big hit. Usually, close to three-quarters of its annual revenue is generated in the summer.

Compared to a normal year, revenue is down by 70 per cent, said Gosselin.

During the first wave of the virus, the federal government's emergency wage subsidy helped cover staff salaries. The zoo's foundation also raised about $110,000, which helped, but it's not enough, said Gosselin.

It costs about five million dollars a year to care for the animals at the Granby Zoo, said Gosselin.

Planned renovations to several of its enclosures as well as the main building are now delayed.

"We were getting ready to remodel our main building to be more of a scientific conservation centre, working with universities and students," said Gosselin.

Throughout October, the zoo is only open on weekends, but after that, it will close until after Christmas.

If the virus continues throughout the spring and the zoo is required to severely restrict attendance for another summer, Gosselin said it would probably be "catastrophic."

Last month, it co-signed a letter from the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums asking the province for financial support.

"The government has to choose. It's not like an open bar," said Gosselin.

But he knows the zoo isn't alone, many businesses and organizations are struggling.

Earlier this week, Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon announced $100 million to help businesses — including private museums — who had to close due to this month's partial shutdown, but only if they are located in red zones. 

Time to reimagine

The Quebec Aquarium is trying to take this imposed break in stride and will use the time to reimagine some of its programming.

Even before the closure, Tessier had cut expenses by cancelling Halloween festivities and the Christmas light show.

Luckily, the aquarium is a provincial corporation, managed by Sépaq, the government agency in charge of parks and wildlife reserves.

The parks and camping spots it manages were extremely busy this summer, so that helps support the aquarium.

Still, Tessier isn't taking anything for granted and is keeping a close eye on her budget. She hopes the aquarium can do its part to getting the economy going again in November.

"I hope what we're doing, the sacrifice we are doing, will help," said Tessier.

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