Tuesday may finally bring answers to the question California theme park operators have been asking for months: When can we reopen? There’s just one problem: big parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood may not like it.
Gov. Gavin Newsom indicated during his weekly press conference Monday that the state will categorize theme parks by size and that larger ones may be among the last to reopen to continue to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. When they do, attendance would likely be capped at 25%. He said that California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly would provide details as part of his weekly COVID-19 update on Tuesday afternoon.
“We’re going to break up the theme parks,” Newsom said. “It’s not just one or two brands. It’s many different parts that are part of the theme park industry.”
The California Attractions and Parks Association, which represents Disneyland and other theme parks across the state, was unhappy with the state’s initial draft guidelines. The New York Times reported that the early draft indicated that theme parks couldn’t reopen until the infection rate in their county moved into Tier 4 (“minimum” risk) of the state’s reopening blueprint. To qualify, the county could only have one case per 100,000 residents with a positivity rate below 2%.
Newsom has repeatedly cited the arrival of cooler temperatures and flu season as grounds for additional caution.
Currently, Orange County, where Disneyland is located, is in Tier 2, which poses a “substantial” risk of infection. Los Angeles County, home to Universal Studios, is in Tier 4 (“widespread” risk), the most severe category.
“This is an area of obvious and real concern,” Newsom said during his news conference. “That’s why we’re being very sober, and – forgive me – stubborn about some industries in the state that I know are eager to get guidelines.”
The parks have been been closed for seven months now and in limbo since the summer as they waited for the state to announce the benchmarks for reopening. Disneyland, which scrapped its planned July 17 reopening due to this summer’s COVID-19 spike, and Universal Studios could only watch and take notes as their Florida counterparts reopened.
But even though Disney and Universal’s Orlando parks opened without spurring new COVID-19 surges, it wasn’t enough to prevent financial upheaval. In late September, Disney announced layoffs of 28,000 employees in California and Florida, and Disney World shortened its hours in response to smaller-than-anticipated crowds. The city of Anaheim, where Disneyland is located, now expects a fiscal-year deficit of at least $75 million, instead of the surplus that had been expected before the pandemic struck.
Deadline and Yahoo News have both reported that Universal Studios Hollywood has laid off more than 2,200 park workers, cutting 1,374 positions permanently and furloughing another 849, though NBCUniversal wouldn’t comment on the exact number to either outlet.
On Saturday, the Coalition of Resort Labor Unions, which had opposed Disneyland’s July reopening, sent a letter to Newsom saying that Disney had listened to its employees and demonstrated it can operate its parks safely.
The unions, including the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and Independent Employee Service Association (IESA), said they believe Disneyland can reopen safely once there are fewer than four new cases per 100,000 residents and the rate of positive tests falls below 5% in Orange County, California, where the park is located. That improvement would move the county into Tier 3 or “moderate” risk territory.
Newsom stressed Monday that the guidelines are being crafted “with our eyes wide open on what’s happening now around the world. We have to maintain that vigilance so we can avoid any further increase in transmission.”
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Contributing: Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY