CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Liberty Kocis wore a white vest as she pulled a little red wagon through a crowded Cape May County Park & Zoo on Thursday.
A few dozen brown paper bags were stacked up in the wagon, accompanied by a box of gloves and hand sanitizer. On the back, a sign read, “Six Feet Saves: Ask us for a COVID-19 education bag.”
“Would you like a bag from the Cape May County Health Department?” she asked through her mask to visitors lined up near the goats and pigs near the zoo entrance.
Kocis is a social distancing ambassador for Cape May County, a program started in May to promote social distancing and safety measures in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Cape May County, where the impact of the virus has been small compared to the northern counties in the state, has a small year-round population but draws in hundreds of thousands of visitors each week in the late spring and summer.
Since May 15, the ambassadors, including 25 from the county’s Medical Reserve Corps, have roamed the county’s boardwalks and beaches, as well as the zoo, handing out their materials and gently reminding people that “we’re not completely out of the woods yet,” Kocis said.
“I think it’s a neat idea. They’re not out there beating people up, they’re trying to reinforce it,” said county Freeholder Jeffrey Pierson, who serves as liaison to the Health Department. “I got a lot of good feedback.”
Pierson said county Public Health Coordinator Kevin Thomas and county health educators Kocis and Megan Santiago proposed the idea of the ambassador program after seeing a similar program at work at the University of Rochester in New York.
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Kocis said that since they have been out, they have seen 50/50 compliance with wearing masks.
“I think people do get in the mindset that, ‘Oh, we’re on vacation,” she said, noting some people bring their masks but carry them in their pocket.
In addition to the ambassadors, a voice on the loudspeaker reminded zoo visitors to keep 6 feet apart. The zoo is also marked with directional signs and barriers to keep traffic flowing.
Before this week, masks were not required to be worn by visitors to the zoo. A new policy announced Thursday now requires them.
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In addition, the county put out a request for universal mask compliance Wednesday, citing a consensus in the medical community that mask-wearing is effective at mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
“Cape May County is a safe place to live, work and visit, and we must step up aggressively to meet the COVID threat in order to keep it that way,” said Freeholder Will Morey, co-chair of the county’s Recovery Task Force. “We’re in a position right now to contain the mild outbreak of COVID that our county is experiencing. Engaging this clear and present threat will serve to protect public health and, for businesses, may literally save the summer.”
So far, the ambassadors have given out 4,000 education bags in their travels.
Thursday was Kocis and Santiago’s third visit to the zoo since it reopened last month.
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Most guests were receptive, although somewhat surprised, at the solicitation from Kocis and Medical Reserve Corps volunteer Kathy Abbott, 79.
Some politely declined.
A few, like Sherri Scotti, of Somers Point, came up to the women and asked for a bag.
“This is my first actual time out in public, so it feels good to know that everything is being monitored properly,” said Scotti, who was out with her daughter and grandchild Thursday morning.
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Beatrix Luch, of Willingboro, Burlington County, said she forgot her mask Thursday.
“It’s a good thing they’re walking around,” she said, seated on a bench with her son, Noah, 7.
She said the social distancing ambassador program was “pretty great.”
“Because they care about the whole situation, obviously,” Luch said.
This is the final scheduled week for the ambassadors, Pierson said. They will be used as needed throughout the rest of the summer.