The state of California finally announced its long-awaited reopening requirements for theme parks Tuesday, and Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood and other park operators weren’t happy. Now the theme park trade group that represents them is considering suing the state.
California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly confirmed that the state is dividing theme parks into two categories, which have different requirementsto reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Small parks with sub-15,000 capacity will be allowed to reopen their outdoor attractions at 25% capacity when the infection rate in those counties dips into the economic blueprint’s third tier (“moderate risk”), for counties that have fewer than 4 cases of COVID-19 and a positivity rate under 5%.
But larger parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios have a much higher hurdle to clear: They must wait until their counties enter tier 4 (“minimum risk”) with less than one case per 100,000 residents and the positivity rate under 2%. Currently Orange County, where Disneyland is located,falls in the “substantial” risk tier (the second-worst of the four levels) while Los Angeles County, home to Universal Studios, is in in the “widespread” risk tier,the most severe category.
Erin Guerrero, executive director of the California Attractions and Parks Association, said Wednesday that the trade group wouldn’t rule out legal action.
“All options are open at this point,” she told reporters during a virtual press conference. “Our No. 1 goal is to be allowed to reopen responsibly. Obviously, we’d love to keep that conversation going (with the state) and come up with a reasonable timeline … But at this point, any option is viable.”
Karen Irwin, the president and chief operating officer at Universal Studios Hollywood, told reporters that her primary goal is getting employees back to work. To that end, her team has been exploring alternate strategies, such as opening some on-site businesses that are currently allowed to operate under the state’s blueprint, such as restaurants and retail.
“Unfortunately, that’s only going to allow us to bring a fraction of our team back, but I would certainly do it,” she said, though her main goal is getting the entire park open. We really do believe that should be in tier 3.”
Irwin dismissed the new criteria as “not based in science or facts” and called the state’s claim that it collaborated with park operators on the guidelines as “disingenuous.”
Earlier this month: Disneyland, Universal Studios at odds with California over expected theme park guidelines
“Our parks are controlled,” she said. “They’re primarily outdoor businesses that have proven we can operate responsibly,”
Irwin also pushed back against the state’s suggestion that park attendance be limited to people who live in the same counties as the parks.
The state’s position “ignores the fact that parks already operating elsewhere see predominantly local attendance,” she said. “We all know – and a lot of data supports – that international visitation to California is unfortunately not going to return to 2019 levels for many years to come. We’re also seeing that outer U.S. attendance is vastly reduced. And on top of that, Southern California parks generally relied on local visitors even pre-COVID.”
Ken Potrock, president of Disneyland Resort, called the state’s reopening strategy a “one-dimensional health approach” that is too focused on factors like number of cases per 100,000 and positivity rates.
“Those are not the only health metrics that need to be taken into account,” he argued, noting the long-term impacts of unemployment and the ability to feed or house one’s family or get medical care has on a person’s overall health.
“This pandemic is a much broader health crisis when unemployment becomes a factor in what we’re trying to do.” The state, he said, isn’t weighing the bigger picture “as strongly as we believe it should.”
At the end of September, Disney laid off 28,000 park workers in both California and Florida, home to Disney World.
Disneyland’s hometown of Anaheim is cutting its budget forecast by 30% due to the lost tax revenue brought on by its seven-month closure, city spokesman Mike Lyster told the Associated Press.
“We understand this is a pandemic-induced downturn. But what our concern is, without a recovery plan, it could easily become a prolonged economic downturn,” Lyster said.
Potrock indicated that suing the state should be the last resort.
“Trying to come up with a collaborative solution is the end goal for all of us – one that’s fair and balanced and takes into account all the facts. … That’s the ultimate opportunity and one that we all gladly and willingly would roll up our sleeves and work with the administration to do. But it has to be a much greater back-and-forth dialogue.”
So far, he said, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has given the parks instructions and the parks have tried to comply, only to have “the goal line keep moving.”
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