At Disney World, ‘worst fears’ about virus have not come true

Brooks Barnes, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 11 2020 11:08 AM | Updated as of Oct 12 2020 12:45 AM

At Disney World, ‘worst fears’ about virus have not come true 1
The entrance to Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., July 11, 2020. Attendance has been low since the July reopening, but health officials and worker unions also say safety protocols have kept the coronavirus at bay. Eve Edelheit, The New York Times/file

In July, one infectious disease expert said that Walt Disney World’s reopening was a “terrible idea” that was “inviting disaster.” Social media users attacked Disney as “irresponsible” and “clueless” for pressing forward, even as coronavirus cases surged in Florida. A few aghast onlookers turned Disney World marketing videos into parody trailers for horror films.

Attendance has been lower than anticipated. Travel agents say families have been postponing Christmastime plans to vacation at the Orlando-area resort, in part because of concerns about the safety of flying. In recent days, Disney World, citing continued uncertainty about the duration of the pandemic, began laying off 15,550 workers, or 20 percent of its workforce.

As tumultuous as the three months since the reopening have been, however, public health officials and Disney World’s unions say there have been no coronavirus outbreaks among workers or guests. So far, Disney’s wide-ranging safety measures appear to be working.

“We have no issues or concerns with the major theme parks at this point,” said Dr. Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, which includes Disney World.

Disney declined to say how many Disney World employees had tested positive for the coronavirus since the resort reopened. In phone interviews, union leaders said cases had been minimal.

“We’ve had very few, and none, as far as we can tell, have been from work-related exposure,” said Eric Clinton, president of UNITE HERE Local 362, which represents roughly 8,000 attraction workers and custodians.

Clinton’s assessment was echoed by UNITE HERE Local 737, which represents hotel housekeepers and food and beverage workers; Local 631 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, where members include stagehands and show technicians; United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1625, which handles merchandise and banquet workers; and Teamsters Local 385, which looks after bus drivers, laundry workers and entertainers who appear in costume as Disney characters.

“So far — so far — it has been a success story,” said Julee Jerkovich, a United Food & Commercial Workers official. “As a union rep, I do not say that lightly.”

Disney’s ability to keep workers and guests safe has been at the center of an increasingly tense standoff in California that has kept the company’s West Coast resort closed since March. Gov. Gavin Newsom, citing coronavirus concerns, has refused to allow California theme parks to reopen; Disney, citing the efficacy of its safety procedures in Florida, has pressured him to reconsider. So have elected officials in Southern California, where the two-park Disneyland Resort in Anaheim supports 78,000 jobs, according to economists at California State University, Fullerton.

Getting the California complex running again is important for Disney because other areas of the company — theatrical films, cruise vacations — have also been severely disrupted by the pandemic and face a more strenuous recovery. Disneyland generated an estimated $3.8 billion in revenue last year, according to Michael Nathanson, a media analyst.

Last week, a frustrated Robert A. Iger, Disney’s executive chair, resigned from an economic task force set up by Newsom at the start of the pandemic. California wants theme parks to remain closed until the rate of new daily coronavirus cases in their counties falls below 1 per 100,000 people and the counties have a less than 2% positivity rate for tests — what the governor has deemed “minimal” on a four-level scale for coronavirus risk. Theme park owners, including NBCUniversal and Six Flags, have pushed back on that standard as unrealistic, saying it will effectively keep them closed until a vaccine has been deployed.

“We’re going to be stubborn about it,” Newsom said at a briefing Wednesday, noting that he wanted a “health-first” approach.

“There’s no hurry putting out guidelines,” he continued. “It’s very complex. These are like small cities.”

Every other Disney resort has reopened, including those in Paris, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

New coronavirus cases in Florida have dropped steadily since Disney World reopened in mid-July. Florida had about 11,800 new cases a day when Disney’s theme parks unlocked their gates. A month into operations, the number was about 6,400. On Friday, Florida added 2,908 cases. The Orlando area has had an even sharper decline. Disney has said Floridians have made up about 50% of attendance since the reopening.

“The data shows that we opened responsibly,” Dr. Pamela Hymel, chief medical officer for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, said by phone. “We didn’t cause a surge.” In response to Newsom’s comments, Hymel said, “We absolutely reject the suggestion that reopening the Disneyland Resort is incompatible with a ‘health first’ approach.”

The coronavirus continues its rampage, with an average of 47,000 new cases a day in the United States over the past week and the Great Plains particularly struggling. The arrival of flu season and cooler fall air (prompting more people to spend time indoors) has added to concerns about a spike. Europe is already battling one.

Anne W. Rimoin, an epidemiology professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA, said she remained concerned about Disney World as a potential coronavirus hot spot. She noted that people visiting from out of state could be infected during their trip — if not at Disney World itself then at the airport or in a taxi — and take the virus back to their communities. Tracking such cases would be impossible.

“Just because we don’t have ample evidence of it happening — yet — doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Rimoin said. “There is simply no zero-risk scenario here. When you create opportunities for large numbers of people to come together, you are providing opportunities for the virus to spread.”

There is concern among Disney World union leaders that a recent decision by Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, to lift capacity restrictions on restaurants and other businesses, including theme parks, could lead to a wave of infections and hot-spot headlines.

“We need people to feel safe coming to Florida for vacation because that puts us to work,” said Mike McElmury, trustee of Teamsters Local 385. “Everyone is worried about going backward.”

Despite the relaxation of regulations by DeSantis, Disney World has not changed its self-imposed capacity limits, according to a Disney spokesperson. The resort will continue to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in that regard.

Union leaders note that Disney World has strengthened its safety protocols since reopening. At first, bandannas and neck gaiters were acceptable face coverings, but all visitors must now wear masks, and employees police whether they are being worn correctly. People were initially allowed to remove their masks when eating or drinking, including when walking around. Now they must be seated or stationary.

More plexiglass dividers were installed in rides and restaurants in recent weeks.

“The safety protocols — the cleaning and the social distancing and the mandatory face coverings — have really proven to be workable,” said Paul Cox, president of the stagehands local. “The worst fears have not come true.”