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Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood on Tuesday received stringent guidelines from the state for reopening after being shuttered most of the year due to the pandemic.
The industry has been locked in a bitter battle with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, which came to a boiling point weeks ago when The Walt Disney Co. demanded the state allow its theme park to reopen, pointing to its counterpart in Florida, which began its successful phased reopening over the summer.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly introduced the guidelines during an annual weekly press conference on the state’s novel coronavirus data and response. Under the issued guidelines Disneyland and Universal Studios (which were labeled higher risk settings than outdoor stadiums) can operate under Tier 4 “Yellow” (minimal) with a limited capacity of 25 percent. Orange County is currently in the “Red” (substantial) tier. Los Angeles County is at Tier 1 “Purple” (widespread). Once open, a reservation system will be required (no day-of ticket sales) and masks will be required at the theme parks. Smaller theme parks will not have as difficult a path to reopen since they are mostly outdoors and draw crowds mainly from nearby, Ghaly noted. Therefore, they can open once the respective county is in the Orange tier.
Disneyland Resort president Ken Potrock blasted the “arbitrary” state guidelines.
“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. 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 in a statement.
He continued, “Together with our labor 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.”
Karen Irwin, president and chief operating officer for Universal Studios Hollywood, said the “shameful” guidelines made “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 a statement. “The health and safety of our guests and team members has always been our top priority. We have designed detailed health and safety protocols that allowed us to open our theme parks in Orlando, Osaka and Singapore. We have collaborated with Los Angeles County Health Department and government officials on a comprehensive plan to move forward safely here, and we are prepared and ready to reopen.”
Irwin continued, “Our theme parks are controlled primarily outdoor businesses that we have proven we can operate responsibly. We should be in Tier Three, along with other industries that have proven they can reopen responsibly. Our employees are ready to go back to work and the fact that they won’t be able to do so until well into next year is shameful.”
The California Attractions and Parks Association also lit into Newsom and the state for the “unfair” and “unreasonable” guidelines.
“To say today’s announcement on theme parks is disappointing would be a grave understatement. The Governor has not used science or data to inform his decision. Theme parks have opened and operated safely around the world for months. Data and science prove that theme parks can operate responsibly anywhere – there is no rational reason to believe they can’t do so in California. No one cares more about park employee and guest safety than the parks themselves,” Erin Guerrero, executive director of CAPA said in a statement. “While we appreciate the more nuanced approach in the guidance for smaller theme parks, keeping California’s larger parks closed is unfair and unreasonable. Based on the responsible reopening of parks in other countries and states, science and data do not support the indefinite closure of this iconic industry in California.”
She continued, “Responsibly reopening amusement parks on a reasonable timeline can and should be done while we fight this pandemic – the two are not mutually exclusive. California’s theme parks and their phenomenal workforce are ready to reopen responsibly. Parks’ loyal guests are ready and the communities and local governments surrounding the parks are ready. We urge Governor Newsom to revise this guidance to allow for a reasonable and responsible reopening of California’s signature theme park industry in Tier 3.”
Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu criticized the guidelines as “failing working families and small business.”
Said Sidhu in a statement posted to Twitter, As painful as this is, Disney and the city of Anaheim will survive. But too many Anaheim hotels, stores and restaurants will not survive another year of this.” Sidhu added that Disney and the convention center could reopen safely now. “The union and Disneyland agree and support the reopening of theme parks in Tier 3 — not Tier 4, which would wipe out jobs in our city and destroy lives.”
Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D–Fullerton) called the guidelines “disappointing.”
“These guidelines will have a significant impact on the tourism industry and the surrounding business sectors throughout California. I will continue to collaborate with the governor and our industry leaders as we work to continue to follow the data and have everyone return safely back to our theme parks in a reasonable time period,” Quirk-Silva said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.
A spokeswoman for UFCW 324, one of Disneyland’s multiple unions, said in a statement, “We are disappointed that theme parks where unions have negotiated strict safety protocols are not able to open in Orange, while amusement parks where employees have no representation or negotiated protections will be permitted to open in Orange tier.”
The statement continued, “We believe that Disney has demonstrated that it is ready to open safely. They have successfully re-opened Downtown Disney with adherence to the negotiated safety standards.”
At first, Newsom would not budge on reopening theme parks after the state experienced a huge spike of COVID-19 cases in June, which derailed Disney’s July plan. Since that time, Disney has been the most vocal about being provided a path to reopen.
Amid the stalemate with the governor, Disneyland implemented new health and safety recommendations from the Orange County Health Care Agency. Mike Lyster, a spokesman for the city of Anaheim who toured the park following the modifications, told the media what he witnessed. “On the rides, you’ll see much more plastic shielding in place, wherever folks might come into contact with each other in fairly close proximity. There are floor markings everywhere that will keep my party away from another party, basically keeping that six feet of distance between them,” he explained. Lyster also noted there will be a “significant amount of open space” between parties while waiting on rides. Much of what he described is how Disney World is currently operating.
Seemingly fed up, Disney last month demanded Newsom and state officials issue guidelines. When Newsom did not budge, Disney announced 28,000 park employees would be laid off. Chairman Bob Iger also resigned from the state’s coronavirus economic task force. A seemingly unfazed Newsom said there was still “no hurry” to reopen. However, after being blasted shortly thereafter by Disney and the California Attractions & Parks Association for being “unreasonable,” Newsom said he would send a team to visit Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood, as well as Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, to see firsthand — and report back — how the parks operate with the new health and safety measures in place.
In addition to the rally on Saturday, a group of Disneyland unions which represent more than 10,000 park employees, sent a letter to Newsom requesting he allow the park to reopen. The move was significant in that the same group of unions sent Newsom a letter in June asking him to not allow the theme park to reopen because, at the time, they were unsatisfied with the health and safety measures in place. However, in the Saturday letter, the group said Disney put in additional measures with which they were content to return to work.
2:25 p.m.: Updated with statements from Universal Studios Hollywood and the California Attractions and Parks Association.
1:15 p.m. Updated with reaction from Disney and Anaheim mayor.
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