California has finally provided official guidance on when theme parks, including Disneyland, can reopen, and let’s just say that it’s not especially good news for the theme park industry.
California’s theme parks—which includes Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, SeaWorld San Diego, and more—are subject to new reopening guidelines that were officially added to the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy today. That blueprint is broken into four tiers, based on a county’s current rate of COVID cases per population and the percentage of test results that are positive. A county enters the lowest of those four tiers when it’s registering one or less new daily COVID-19 case per 100,000 citizens, and when the positive test rate is 2% or less.
Currently Orange County—the home of Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm—is in the third tier, meaning it’s two tiers away from meeting the state’s requirements. Universal Studios Hollywood, meanwhile, is in the most severe tier, three tiers away from the threshold for reopening.
Once a county reaches that lowest tier, a park can reopen, but with significant protocols in place. Park capacity must be limited to 25%, and no indoor queueing would be allowed, which would impact the operations of various preshows and potentially entire rides. Guests would also have to buy tickets in advance and make reservations to attend the parks. Given the uncertainty of the virus’s spread, it’s hard to predict when counties might enter that lowest tier, and thus unlikely that any of these parks would be able to actually plan an official reopening—especially since California might request that they reclose if a county slides back into a more severe tier.
Disney, which has publicly criticized California and Gov. Gavin Newsom for the state’s lack of guidance, wasted no time shooting back at the new guidelines. Ken Potrock, the president of Disneyland Resort, released the following statement:
We have proven that we can responsibly reopen, with science-based health and safety protocols strictly enforced at our theme park properties around the world. Nevertheless, the State of California continues to ignore this fact, instead mandating arbitrary guidelines that it knows are unworkable and that hold us to a standard vastly different from other reopened businesses and state-operated facilities. Together with our labor unions we want to get people back to work, but these State guidelines will keep us shuttered for the foreseeable future, forcing thousands more people out of work, leading to the inevitable closure of small family-owned businesses, and irreparably devastating the Anaheim/Southern California community.
Of the 12 theme parks Disney operates around the world, the two in California—Disneyland and Disney California Adventure—are the only two that remain closed. The rest are all operating under various procedures meant to limit the potential spread of the virus, including lowered capacity and mandatory mask usage. Florida, which has taken about as opposite a strategy to the coronavirus as possible in comparison to California (some would say Florida has no coronavirus strategy…), let theme parks reopen almost six months ago. Most Florida theme parks reopened in early June, whereas Walt Disney World Resort reopened its four theme parks and several of its hotels in July.
Disney has struggled significantly during the pandemic, with both its travel business and theatrical wing effectively shutting down entirely for extended periods of time. After seeing an 85% drop in the theme parks' third quarter revenues year to year, the company announced it would be laying off 28,000 employees from its Parks, Experiences and Products division. The layoffs came after the company restored its executive salaries to their full amounts after a temporary pay cut in the first months of the pandemic.
In his presentation of the new guidelines, California Health Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly laid out why theme parks are a higher risk for transmitting the virus than other large gatherings or public events. It's all pretty common sense stuff—theme park guests roam freely around the park instead of staying in a specific assigned seat or location. Theme parks attract guests from around the state or country, instead of relying largely upon the local population. Instead of sitting in a football stadium for a few hours, guests are in a theme park for an entire day, and often spend multiple days in a row at the parks and local hotels. It's more people, in less regulated and potentially closer contact with each other, over a longer period of time—which, yes, doesn't sound especially safe during a deadly pandemic.
Of course, as Disney and other theme park operators have argued since the state’s decision, other states aren’t nearly as restrictive, and this open-ended shutdown will have a potentially catastrophic impact upon the theme park industry in California and the local economies that depend on these parks. As Erin Guerrero, the California Attractions and Parks Association’s executive director, said in a statement today:
To say today’s announcement on theme parks is disappointing would be a grave understatement. The Governor has not used science or data to inform his decision. Theme parks have opened and operated safely around the world for months. Data and science prove that theme parks can operate responsibly anywhere – there is no rational reason to believe they can’t do so in California. No one cares more about park employee and guest safety than the parks themselves. “Let me be unequivocal- the guidance issued by the Newsom Administration will keep theme parks shuttered for the foreseeable future. By forcing amusement parks to stay closed until their home county reaches Tier 4, the Governor has issued a “Keep Theme Parks Closed Indefinitely” Plan which will devastate California’s major theme park industry.