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Contributed photo by the Tennessee Aquarium / A father and son enjoy watching an otter swim at the Tennessee Aquarium, which has dropped its mask-wearing requirements for those with vaccines.

As Chattanooga pivots toward a more normal world following the pandemic, local tourist attractions are dropping mask mandates and more office workers are returning to their old work sites.

The Tennessee Aquarium began admitting vaccinated guests without masks for the first time Tuesday at both the aquarium and Imax Theater. Similarly, the Lookout Mountain attractions at Ruby Falls and Rock City both said they began advising visitors Tuesday that there is no need to wear a mask during tours if they have had the COVID-19 vaccine.

The shift comes as EPB on Tuesday brought back to its offices and work sites nearly all of its staff that has been working remotely during the pandemic.

The moves toward more normal operations follow the guidance issued last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that fully vaccinated guests no longer need to wear masks either outdoors or indoors. According to the CDC, an individual is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving a second dose of Pfizer or Moderna, or two weeks after a single- dose vaccine, such as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

None of the businesses changing their policy said they would require visitors or workers to show proof of their vaccinations, but they are continuing to urge those who are not vaccinated for the coronavirus to wear masks. The local businesses and attractions also have not lifted all of their restrictions even for those who are vaccinated.

"Despite the removal of the Aquarium's mask requirement for fully-vaccinated guests, other safety measures will remain in place, including a cap on hourly attendance and the use of timed-entry ticketing," said Thom Benson, chief communications officer and marketing director for the Tennessee Aquarium. "The Aquarium's housekeeping staff will continue to rigorously sanitize frequently touched surfaces, and all staff members will be required to wear masks while on duty."

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Photo by Dave Flessner / The Tennessee Aquarium in downtown Chattanooga has relaxed its mask mandate for those who have been vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus.

Benson said the aquarium is adding an early bird admission window to explore its River Journey and Ocean Journey exhibits from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. — and from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturday — for those with health concerns. During those hours, all persons will be required to wear a mask.

Susan Harris, president of Rock City Gardens on Lookout Mountain, said the outdoor attraction is continuing its timed entry for guests, with a set number of tickets available every 15 minutes.

"Since Rock City Gardens is a self-guided outdoor attraction, we are able to accommodate a number of visitors, so the capacity restrictions are only a factor on peak demand days like holidays," she said.

Ruby Falls also continued to reduce the number of tours in its underground cave each hour, although tour group sizes have returned to full capacity.

"We continue to carefully coordinate the flow of guests in the cave and across the park by selling timed-entry tickets online only," said Lara Caughman, corporate communications manager for Ruby Falls.

Chattanooga's major tourism attractions said attendance over the Memorial Day weekend — traditionally the start of the busy summer season — was above levels in either of the past two years. After most Americans stayed home last year, many are anxious to travel again this summer.

"It was a terrific summer season kickoff and we're optimistic for a wonderful summer," Caughman said.

At Rock City, Harris said available tickets sold out both Saturday and Sunday during the Summer Music Weekend.

"We are very optimistic about the summer travel season and look forward to enjoying welcoming guests in this our 89th year," Harris said.

While more people are traveling for vacations, workers at more businesses also are returning to the office. EPB on Tuesday brought back virtually its entire staff that had been working remotely back to its offices or work sites, although EPB Vice President J.Ed. Marston said some workers will still work remotely at times.

The Tennessee Valley Authority will begin bringing back some of its office staff to its downtown complex after the July 4th holiday, and Unum and BlueCross BlueShield are planning to bring more remote workers back to the office after Labor Day.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340

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