Disneyland and other Calif. theme parks get a path to reopening

By Hugo Martín

Los Angeles Times

Facing increased pressure from business owners and mayors in towns with theme parks, California health officials released protocols for operating the parks, giving destinations such as Disneyland, Universal Studios and Knott’s Berry Farm a path to reopening.

Large parks face more stringent requirements than smaller ones, and Disneyland won’t be able to open for several weeks at earliest.

“There is a path forward. We don’t know when but we know how” the parks will reopen, said Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s secretary of Health and Human Services.

The protocols announced Tuesday allow a large park to reopen once coronavirus transmission in its home county falls enough for the county to reach Tier 4 — the state’s least restrictive designation.

A small park, meanwhile, can welcome guests once its home county reaches Tier 3, the second-least-restrictive level.

Ghaly laid out some other restrictions as well: All parks must sell tickets in advance to make contact tracing easier, and face coverings will be mandatory except when eating or drinking.

Large theme parks will be limited to 25% capacity.

Small theme parks will be limited to 25% capacity or 500 visitors, whichever is fewer; can accept only visitors who live in the county; and can operate only outdoor attractions.

The announcement comes four months after theme parks in Florida, including the four parks in Walt Disney World there, to reopen with capacity limits, mask and temperature-check requirements and the elimination of events that draw people to crowd together such as parades and fireworks shows. The Disneyland parks in Paris, Shanghai and Hong Kong Disneyland have all reopened as well.

The question of when and how to reopen California’s amusement parks has been fraught. The parks began in September to publicly pressure Gov. Gavin Newsom to provide a path to reopening. Local business interests and politicians joined the chorus. Walt Disney Co.’s executive chairman resigned from Newsom’s economic task force.

A coalition of unions representing workers at the Disneyland Resort issued a statement Monday asking the governor to include them in the reopening discussions. The unions said they had reached agreements with Disneyland management on safety protocols.

Newsom’s original draft guidelines would have allowed the theme parks to reopen only when their home counties reached the fourth and final tier of the governor’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy opening plan, according to theme park officials involved in the meetings with the governor.

A county is assigned to one of the four tiers based on the number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents and the rate of positive tests it has, as well as an equity benchmark. The lower the case numbers and positive test rate, the fewer restrictions are imposed on schools and businesses. The first tier is the most restrictive; the fourth is the least restrictive.

Los Angeles County, home of Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain, is in the most restrictive tier. Orange County, home of Disneyland, Disney California Adventure Park and Knott’s Berry Farm, is in the second-most restrictive.

The state’s theme parks voluntarily shut down in March after California recommended canceling all gatherings of more than 250 people amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

The closures have dealt an economic blow to the state, especially to cities in Southern California.

Researchers at Cal State Fullerton estimate that the Disneyland Resort alone normally contributes $8.5 billion a year to Southern California’s economy and, before the pandemic, employed about 31,000 workers, representing 3.6% of all jobs in Orange County.

In Anaheim, the August unemployment rate was still above 12% — nearly the same as the peak unemployment caused by the Great Recession — and Mayor Harry Sidhu has said the city faces a projected $100-million deficit partly due to the loss of hotel taxes paid by overnight visitors.

Although theme parks have reopened in Florida and other states, the pandemic has resulted in $23 billion in economic losses for theme parks across the country in 2020, according to the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions, a trade group with members in more than 100 countries.

The pressure on Newsom to release guidelines to reopen the theme parks began to build last month, with Disney officials and the mayors of Anaheim and two adjacent cities speaking out about the financial effects of the closures and noting that Disney’s Florida parks reopened in July.

Newsom was set to announce the protocols Oct. 2, but the California Attractions and Parks Assn. balked after seeing a draft. It asked him to delay and work with the parks in what the association’s executive director called a “more earnest manner, listening to park operators’ expertise and collaborating with the industry.”

Also that week, Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger resigned from Newsom’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery — an abrupt public confirmation of the growing tensions.

Newsom has since sent a team of people to theme parks open in other states to learn what precautions those parks take to deter the spread of the coronavirus.