Disneyland stays closed while smaller theme parks open. Why California's COVID-19 guidance 'makes sense' to experts.

Korin Miller
·5 min read

After months of closures, California officials released new regulations this week for theme parks to reopen during the pandemic. But while many smaller theme parks can now reopen their gates, larger parks like Disneyland will need to stay closed for the foreseeable future.

While many smaller theme parks can now reopen their doors, larger parks like Disneyland will need to stay closed for the foreseeable future, according to new California guidelines. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
While many smaller theme parks can now reopen their doors, larger parks like Disneyland will need to stay closed for the foreseeable future, according to new California guidelines. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The guidance is detailed and depends on the state’s tiered system of risk. Areas with the most COVID-19 transmission are in tier purple, which indicates more regulations by state and local authorities. From there, the tiers — red, orange and yellow — lessen in restrictiveness.

Under the guidance, theme parks may begin to open when their area is in an orange tier, but there are restrictions. Those include:

  • Attendance is limited to 500 people or 25 percent of the park’s capacity (whichever is less)

  • Guests must make reservations in advance

  • Parks are limited to outdoor operations only

  • Only people from the county the park is located in may visit

  • Mask use is required, except when eating or drinking

If a park is located in a county designated tier yellow, the park may operate at 25 percent of its normal capacity, regardless of how many people it lets in. Officials will also remove the area restriction, but advance reservations will still be required. Currently, Orange County, which is where Disneyland is located, has a red tier restriction, meaning all operations must be closed.

People have had mixed reactions to the news:

The move by state officials has come under fire, with some pointing out that Florida’s Disney World hasn’t been linked to outbreaks of COVID-19 since reopening in July. Currently, Disney World offers enhanced cleaning measures, promotes physical distancing, has more reduced-contact features and requires temperature checks at the gates, masks for everyone over the age of 2 and advance reservations. Florida has no state-imposed restrictions on theme parks.

“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,” Ken Potrock, president of Disneyland Resort, told Yahoo Life in a statement. “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.”

Potrock said that the park as well as labor unions “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.”

But infectious disease doctors say the regulations make sense

“This is what’s called opening up in a very thoughtful way,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. He says he especially likes the regulation requiring that park attendance be restricted to people from the same county. “That focuses on areas where transmission is low and ends up being lower risk,” he says.

Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that the regulations are “an attempt to try to make a situation as safe as possible — although you’re not going to be able to get the risk down to zero.” Adalja also says that the same-county requirement “makes sense” as far as trying to keep outbreaks to a minimum. Tying reopening regulations to local case counts is a good idea, Adalja says, although he adds, “perhaps, as rapid testing gets better, it will be less important.”

Adalja points out that the regulations aren’t foolproof. Some people, for example, may find a way to get around the rules, such as having a local buy tickets for them. “There is validity to all of these rules, but some of them may be harder to enforce,” he says. And there are also jobs to consider. “It’s important to open the parks safely, including Disney’s, which is laying off a lot of employees,” Adalja says.

Disney World’s lack of outbreaks is “reassuring,” Adalja says, adding, “the California parks can learn from Disney World.”

But Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that people should still be wary about visiting a theme park during the pandemic. “I would still be very cautious about being around a large group of people,” he says. “Any time you are in a crowd, you are at a high risk of getting infected. Remember, there are many people who are asymptomatic and are spreading COVID-19. I don’t think the risk is worth it.”

Ultimately, Watkins says, reopening theme parks will only achieve “money for the park operators, COVID-19 for the patrons.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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