Walt Disney World has reopened to the public but with many new precautions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
For theme park regulars who have been enjoying the new, less-crowded Disney World, this will come as good news: The Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Chapek says it will continue to cap attendance at the Florida theme park at 25% until there is new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’re limited by the 6-foot social-distancing guideline of the CDC. And that translates, essentially, to about a 25% park capacity,” Chapek said in an interview with CNBC’s “Closing Bell” Monday evening. “Every day, that’s about where we’re at: 25%. And that won’t change until the CDC guidelines change.”
He also didn’t sound optimistic about the chances of Disneyland reopening anytime soon, which could lead to more theme park job cuts in addition to the 28,000 workers in Florida and California who lost their jobs at the end of September. Chapek said he hopes the company won’t have to cut any more theme park workers but acknowledged their futures hinge on when Disneyland, its California park, can reopen.
Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state “is in no hurry in putting out guidelines,” referring to the rules that theme parks would need to operate safely in the state, which experienced one of the country’s worst COVID-19 surges over the summer. Though the situation there has improved, CDC data still puts California second in the country in terms of new cases reported in the last week with 22,850, trailing only Texas.
“We don’t anticipate in the immediate term any of these larger theme parks opening until we see more stability in terms of the data,” Newsom said at an Oct. 7 news conference, after promising in mid-September that the state would provide those guidelines “very, very shortly.”
Chapek noted: “Obviously, we’re watching very carefully what the state of California does as an indicator of whether we can retain some of our cast members that are on furlough now. We’d like to keep them on furlough until we can reopen … We’d like to put our cast members back to work – as many of them as possible – as soon as possible if the government will let us.”
Asked about the state of Disney’s negotiations with California, he commented, “It’s not much of a negotiation. It’s pretty much a mandate that we stay closed.”
Neither California nor California Attractions and Parks Association, the trade group that represents Disneyland and other theme parks, would say where the disconnect lies, although the Times reported that the state doesn’t want theme parks to reopen until the infection rate in neighboring counties drops to one per 100,000 residents and the rate of positive tests falls to below 2%. (USA TODAY has requested comment from Newsom’s office and the trade group.)
Such an improvement would move theme parks into the minimum-risk category, the lowest of the four-tier system in the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy. But Orange County, where Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm are located, still has a ways to go: It is currently reporting a range of 4-7 new cases a day per 100,000 people and a positivity rate of 5-8%, which puts it in the substantial-risk, or second-worst, category. Los Angeles County, home to Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain, remains in the widespread-risk – and worst – tier with upwards of seven new cases a day per 100,000 people and a positivity rate over 8%.
Confusing matters further: Theme parks aren’t even a category in the blueprint. And businesses in the two closest categories – museums, zoos and aquariums and family entertainment centers – are allowed to operate under all four risk levels, even if only outdoors.
At a Monday news conference, Newsom said the state is also concerned about reopening its theme parks against the backdrop of fall and flu season.
“This is serious,” he said. “We’re entering not just the flu season, but we’re entering into a period of time where people are more likely to start congregating and mixing back indoors.”
Chapek told CNBC, “It seems to me that the guidelines that are set up by the state of California are more stringent than any state across the country. If you look at the history of Disney and what we’ve been able to do during the reopening – rather than arbitrary standards set up without regard to actual fact – and what we’ve been able to do as a company, I think you’d come to a different decision about reopening Disneyland.”
Chapek pointed to the successful reopening of other Disney properties as evidence that the outcome will be similar at Disneyland: “I look across our Disney properties – be it Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, Walt Disney World, the Disney bubble for the NBA – and all I see is that we’ve been able to open up responsibly using the guidelines that health care experts have given us.”
The parks’ chief medical officer, Dr. Pamela Hymel, echoed that claim to the New York Times, saying: “Data shows that Disney World opened responsibly; we didn’t cause a surge.”
Dr. Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, supported Disney’s claims, telling the newspaper, “We have no issues or concerns with the major theme parks at this point.”
In late August, about six weeks after Disney World reopened, Pino told Orlando’s News 6 that his team had been looking for outbreaks there but had not found any. He credited the park’s diligent efforts but noted that limited capacity has also been a key factor.
“The parks are taking great measures, and they have gone to great lengths to be able to open and to prevent the transmission, but it’s also the whole thing of an open space I think is what’s making the difference,” he said. “And also, the parks are not full. They are operating on probably less than 50% capacity and that may be a contributing factor.”
The company has not said how many employees and guests have tested positive for the virus since Disney World reopened on July. 11. USA TODAY has sought comment from Actor’s Equity, the union that represents Disney performers.
Contributing: Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY
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