Newsom wants to see what out-of-state theme parks are doing before allowing California parks to reopen

Walt Disney World reopening
Guests wear masks as required to attend the official reopening day of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Saturday, July 11, 2020. Disney World was among the parks that state health officials visited to observe their safety protocols.
(Associated Press)

Governor says state should do “our own stubborn research,” citing concerns about the spread of COVID-19 from visitors beyond California’s borders


Gov. Gavin Newsom, in a move to ensure an eventual safe reopening of California theme parks, said Monday that he was sending a team of people to parks already open in other states to learn what precautions they are taking to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

While the governor has yet to offer a timeline for when he will allow large parks like Disneyland and SeaWorld to resume operations, he made it clear that he remains concerned about the potential for virus transmission from visitors traveling to the state from other parts of the country and the world. At the same time, he said he wants to continue working collaboratively with California parks on a plan for letting them resume their operations following a nearly seven-month shutdown.

Although Newsom made it sound as though the planned visits had yet to take place, a spokeswoman for the California Health and Human Services Agency said late Monday that it had already sent health officials last week to reopened theme parks outside the state “to assess the health safeguards in practice.” Among those parks visited was Walt Disney World in Florida, said spokeswoman Kate Folmar.

In addition, a delegation that includes the state Department of Public Health, Cal/OSHA, and the governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, plans to visit California parks this week, in collaboration with the operators, Folmar said. The itinerary for those inspections, she said, has yet to be firmed up.

“These visits will help inform our pending theme park guidance,” Folmar said.

News of the series of site visits cheered the California Attractions and Parks Association, which has been pushing the governor’s office for permission to reopen amusement parks up and down the state.

“Data and science do not point to theme parks as sources of transmission of COVID-19, showing that fighting the pandemic and responsible reopening can occur simultaneously,” the coalition said in a statement. “We applaud the governor for accepting our invitation to visit California’s iconic parks and we are eager to work together so theme parks can reopen responsibly and soon. Doing so will allow tens of thousands of people to get back to work and provide a much-needed jump start for local and state economies that have been decimated by the shutdown.”

Disneyland said Monday that it has no objections to Newsom’s plan to investigate the pandemic conditions at other theme parks.

“We welcome the opportunity to showcase our responsible health and safety protocols that we’ve successfully implemented in our parks around the world and at Walt Disney world,” said Disneyland spokeswoman Liz Jaeger.

Universal Studios Hollywood noted that its parent company has worked with health officials to safely reopen theme parks in Florida and Asia and is ready to use what was learned in those parks to reopen its park in Los Angeles.

“We are proud of what our team members have accomplished across the world and can also share that our guests have given us very positive feedback for the environment and guest experience we are creating,” the theme park said in a statement. “We know of no “outbreak” in our Florida location, but would refer you to local health officials there for specifics.”

Although there have been news reports that parks that have reopened outside California have not experienced outbreaks among workers or guests, Newsom said he wants to know firsthand, through his staff, what is happening.

“We’re trying to understand ourselves directly without the intermediaries,” Newsom said during a news conference that included an update on the state’s response to COVID-19. “We’re doing our own stubborn research and going across states to learn more and not just make this an academic exercise.

“I want folks to come back and tell me what they saw, what their own experience was, because this is serious. At the end of the day, we may be at a 2.6 percent positivity rate but we’re entering not just the flu season but we’re entering into a period of time where people are more likely to start congregating and mixing back indoors.”

Newsom’s latest remarks come amid the backdrop of a prolonged closure of California theme parks, which months ago prepared a set of reopening guidelines they say should have enabled them to safely invite guests back to their properties. Florida began letting parks reopen in June, and Disney parks from Shanghai to Paris have also opened to guests after closing for several months this year due to the coronavirus.

California had been poised to issue reopening guidelines earlier this month but backed away after sharp criticism of the new rules from the theme parks. They were especially concerned about a restriction that would have limited their guests to those living within a 120-mile radius of the parks.

Newsom last week made it clear during a news conference that he did not anticipate any of the large parks reopening
anytime soon “until we see more stability in terms of the data.”

On Monday, he reiterated his concern about the increased possibility of virus spread at theme parks, which he likened to small cities that attract visitors from around the world.

“So I am very sober about the responsibility and the expectation that is placed upon this administration and administrations across this state to keep people safe and at the same time balance the economic imperative of reopening with modifications,” Newsom said. “But I am mindful of trend lines you’re seeing across the country and for that matter, around the world, from Germany to the UK and other parts of the globe that have had setbacks as they enter into the winter months, and I want to make sure we get this right.”

Disney recently reported that it is laying off 28,000 U.S. employees, a move it said was “exacerbated” by California’s shutdown.

Andrew Noymer, associate professor of population health and disease prevention at UC Irvine, said he believes it is possible to reopen the theme parks in California by imposing some major changes to the way they operate. But he added that he doesn’t see any harm in waiting until the governor’s representatives investigate the conditions around theme parks in Florida and other states.

“If he is sincere that he wants the information, I don’t see any harm,” he said. “It sounds reasonable to me.”

In San Diego County, SeaWorld was able to partially reopen in late August when the marine park got authorization to do so under state guidelines for zoos and aquariums, which meant limitations on the capacity for outdoor exhibits and animal shows. Advance reservations are also acquired, and rides remain closed.

The Legoland park remains closed but has reopened its Sea Life Aquarium. The Carlsbad park also has launched this month “Halloween in Miniland,” which is taking place each weekend in October. Legoland’s Miniland U.S.A has been transformed into a Halloween destination where families can come, dressed in costumes and participate in various activities.

Last month, Disney officials suggested that if the Anaheim parks were allowed to reopen, they would have hand-washing stations, offer attendance by reservation only, add a team of designated employees to enforce face-covering requirements, mandate temperature checks for all guests, expand the use of mobile food ordering and put stickers on the ground to remind park-goers to keep their distance from one another.

Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor in the division of infectious diseases at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, said the governor’s plan to investigate other theme parks makes sense but he worries that it will be difficult to determine if the steps taken at other parks are directly responsible for preventing coronavirus outbreaks.

“With so much COVID transmission going on, how do you know if Person A got it at Epcot or at some shopping center,” he said, referring to the theme parks in the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

Weisberg is a reporter with The San Diego Union-Tribune and Martin is a reporter with the Los Angeles Times.