At Disney World, 'Worst Fears' About Virus Have Not Come True

The entrance to Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, July 11, 2020. (Eve Edelheit / The New York Times)
In July, an infectious disease expert said the reopening of Walt Disney World was a "terrible idea" that "invites disaster." Social media users attacked Disney as "irresponsible" and "clueless" in order to move forward, even as coronavirus cases in Florida increased. Some appalled viewers turned Disney World marketing videos into parody trailers for horror films.
The number of visitors was lower than expected. Travel agents say families have postponed Christmas plans for a resort vacation in the Orlando area, in part because of flight safety concerns. In the past few days, citing continued uncertainty about the duration of the pandemic, Disney World began laying off 15,550 workers, or 20% of its workforce.
As tumultuous as the three months since it reopened, public health officials and Disney World unions say there have been no coronavirus outbreaks among workers or guests. So far, Disney's extensive security measures seem to be working.
"We currently have no problems or concerns with any of the major theme parks," said Dr. Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, which also includes Disney World.
Disney declined to say how many Disney World employees had tested positive for the coronavirus since the resort reopened. In telephone interviews, union leaders said the cases were minimal.
"We had very few and none, as far as we can tell, was work-related," said Eric Clinton, president of UNITE HERE Local 362, which represents approximately 8,000 attraction workers and custodians.
Clinton's assessment was confirmed by UNITE HERE Local 737, which represents the hotel housekeepers and food and beverage workers. Local 631 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, whose members include stage workers and show technicians; United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1625 serving goods 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's been a success story," said Julee Jerkovich, a United Food & Commercial Workers official. "As a union representative, I don't say that lightly."
Disney's ability to protect workers and guests was at the center of an increasingly tense conflict in California that has shut down the company's west coast resort since March. Governor Gavin Newsom has declined to reopen California's theme parks, citing coronavirus concerns. Disney has pressured him to reconsider, citing the effectiveness of its Florida security procedures. For example, officials in Southern California have voted, where the Disneyland Resort with two parks in Anaheim supports 78,000 jobs, according to economists at California State University in Fullerton.
It's important for Disney to get the California complex back on stream as other areas of the company - movies, cruise vacations - have also been badly disrupted by the pandemic and are facing a stronger recovery. Disneyland had estimated sales of $ 3.8 billion last year, according to Michael Nathanson, a media analyst.
Last week, a frustrated Disney chairman Robert A. Iger resigned from an economic group appointed 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 residents and counts have a positivity rate of less than 2% for testing - which the governor rated "minimal" at four . Coronavirus risk level scale. Theme park owners, including NBCUniversal and Six Flags, have rolled back this standard as unrealistic, saying it will effectively keep them closed until a vaccine is deployed.
"We will be persistent," Newsom said at a briefing on Wednesday, noting that he wanted a "health first" approach.
"There is no rush to issue guidelines," he continued. "It's very complex. It's like small cities."
Every other Disney resort has reopened, including those in Paris, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
Coronavirus cases in Florida have steadily declined since Disney World reopened in mid-July. Florida had roughly 11,800 new cases a day when Disney's theme parks opened. One month after commissioning, it was around 6,400. On Friday, Florida added 2,908 cases. The Orlando area has shrunk even more. According to Disney, Floridians have hit roughly 50% of the attendance since reopening.
"The data shows that we opened responsibly," said Dr. Pamela Hymel, Chief Medical Officer of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, on the phone. "We didn't cause an increase." In response to Newsom's comments, Hymel said, "We totally oppose the suggestion that reopening the Disneyland Resort is inconsistent with a 'health first' approach."
The coronavirus continues to rage, with an average of 47,000 new cases per day in the United States over the past week, and particularly in the Great Plains. The arrival of flu season and cooler autumn air (which is causing more people to spend time indoors) have heightened concerns about a spike. Europe is already fighting one.
Anne W. Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health, said she remains concerned about Disney World as a potential coronavirus hot spot. She noted that people coming from out of state could get infected during their trip - if not at Disney World itself, then at the airport or in a taxi - and bring the virus back to their communities. Prosecuting such cases would be impossible.
"Just because we don't have enough evidence to prove it doesn't mean it won't happen," said Rimoin. “There is simply no such thing as a zero risk scenario. When you create opportunities for large numbers of people to come together, you are creating opportunities for the virus to spread. "
Disney World union leaders are concerned that a recent decision by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to lift capacity restrictions on restaurants and other businesses, including theme parks, could lead to a wave of infections and headlines.
"We need people who feel safe coming to Florida on vacation because that gets us to work," said Mike McElmury, trustee of Teamsters Local 385. "Everyone's worried about going backwards."
Despite DeSantis easing regulations, Disney World hasn't changed its self-imposed capacity limits, according to a Disney spokesman. The resort will continue to follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in this regard.
Union leaders note that Disney World has tightened its security protocols since it reopened. In the beginning, headscarves and neck gaiters were acceptable face coverings, but now all visitors are required to wear masks and staff monitor whether they are being worn properly. People were initially allowed to remove their masks while eating or drinking, including when walking around. Now they have to sit or be stationary.
In the past few weeks, more plexiglass partitions have been installed in rides and restaurants.
"The safety protocols - cleaning and social distancing, as well as mandatory face covering - have proven really workable," said Paul Cox, president of Stagehands Local. "The worst fears have not been fulfilled."
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company

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