By Shannon McMahon
After months of anticipation, California health officials announced Tuesday that the state will not allow large theme parks such as Disneyland to reopen until the state’s final phase of reopening.
The guidance, which means that SeaWorld San Diego, Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood are far from reopening to visitors at a limited capacity, drew ire from theme park executives and labour groups in California seeking to get park employees back to work.
The state said large amusement parks are high-risk settings that could facilitate the spread of the novel coronavirus because they attract more visitors. The reopening guidelines for the final phase, Tier 4, require counties to meet a seven-day average case rate of under 1 in 100,000 residents.
Orange and San Diego counties, which are home to Disneyland and SeaWorld respectively, are in California’s red-alert Tier 2, and Universal Studios Hollywood’s Los Angeles County is in the worst tier, a purple “widespread” Tier 1.
Disneyland President Ken Potrock called the new theme park guidelines “arbitrary” and “unworkable.”
“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,” Potrock said in a statement. “Together with our labour 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.”
Smaller theme parks in California will be permitted to open sooner, in Tier 3, which allows for up to four covid-19 cases per 100 000.
Universal Studios President Karen Irwin called pushing larger parks back to the final phase unfair.
“Pushing us into Tier Four behind other businesses that have already reopened makes no sense. It ignores science, reason and the economic devastation this will bring to the thousands of our employees, the indirect businesses that rely on us and our industry overall,” Irwin said in an emailed statement. “We should be in Tier Three, along with other industries that have proven they can reopen responsibly.”
Universal implemented health and safety protocols that reopened their theme parks in Orlando, Singapore and Osaka, Japan.
Mayor Harry Sidhu of Anaheim, where Disneyland is located, also spoke out against the decision, saying the park should be able to open in the earlier Tier 3. “As painful as this is, Disney and the city of Anaheim will survive,” Sidhu said. “But too many Anaheim hotels, stores and restaurants will not survive another year of this.”
The California Attractions and Parks Association also condemned the timeline, saying that the “Governor has not used science or data to inform his decision,” and that the new guidance “will keep theme parks shuttered for the foreseeable future.”
California Health and Human Services secretary Mark Ghaly said in a news conference on Tuesday that the state had visited Disney World and other theme parks in conducting their research and were “concerned by mixing without masks” at the parks. Ghaly also said health officials determined theme parks to be a higher risk setting than outdoor sports stadiums, which have assigned seats that aid contact tracing.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Ghaly addressed concerns about if it would be possible for Orange County, which is home to Disneyland, to reach Tier 4 to reopen. He referenced San Francisco’s status as a yellow Tier 4 county.
“This is possible,” Ghaly said. “But it will require a lot of work, a lot of vigilance.”
Clayton Chau, the director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, said at Tuesday’s Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting that Tier 4 would be hard to reach. “I think for a large county like us, especially a county with an institution of higher education where folks [are] coming in from outside the county and outside the state … it’s going to be very hard to achieve the yellow tier,” Chau said.
“Personally, I think that we can look forward to a yellow tier by next summer, hopefully. Hopefully.”