ANAHEIM, Calif. (NEXSTAR) – California will allow large theme parks to reopen with modifications when the counties where they’re located move into the state’s least-restrictive “yellow” tier, a change that likely puts Disneyland, Legoland and other major theme parks at least weeks — and potentially months — away from resuming operations.
The announcement was made Tuesday by California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, who released the state’s much-anticipated reopening protocols for theme parks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The guidelines had been expected earlier this month but were delayed.
When theme parks do welcome back guests, larger locations will have to limit capacity to 25% and must require advance reservations, Ghaly said. Visitors will also have to wear face masks while in the parks, except when eating and drinking.
The county tier requirement means it’s unlikely that any of the popular Southern California theme parks will be open anytime soon.
Orange and San Diego counties — homes to the Disneyland Resort, Knott’s Berry Farm, Legoland and SeaWorld — remain in the state’s “red” tier, which is the second most-restrictive tier and indicates “substantial” risk of COVID-19 spread.
Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, is not optimistic that the county will be in the “yellow” tier anytime soon.
“It depends on when the vaccine will come as well as how many doses [are] available for our populations as well as how many of our residents will readily accept the vaccine – those are the three factors that will determine how soon we can get to the yellow tier,” Chau said. “Personally, I think that we can look forward to a yellow tier by next summer, hopefully. Hopefully.”
The new rules were unveiled as Disney officials, Orange County lawmakers and — most recently — unions representing Disneyland workers have all increased pressure on the state to issue guidance for the ailing sector, which has effectively been shut down since mid-March.
Disneyland responded within an hour of the release, slamming the guidelines as “arbitrary” and “unworkable, and saying California is holding the theme park sector “to a standard vastly different” from other businesses and facilities operated by the state.
“We have proven that we can responsibly reopen, with science-based health and safety protocols strictly enforced at our theme parks around the world. Nevertheless, the State of California continues to ignore this fact,” Disney officials said in the statement.
The company warned that the guidelines will have dire consequences, including more layoffs and the shuttering of smaller businesses.
“Together with our labor unions, we want to get people back to work, but these State guidelines will keep up shuttered for the foreseeable future, forcing thousands more people out of work, leading to investable closure of small family-owned businesses, and irreparably devastating the Anaheim/Southern California community,” the statement read.
The pandemic has already forced Walt Disney Co. to lay off thousands of workers — most of them part-time — from its parks division in the U.S., as COVID-19 forced the monthslong closures of Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Florida. Disney World reopened over the summer.
But the ongoing shuttering of theme parks in California is wreaking havoc economically at both the state and local levels. The Golden State overall is looking at losses of nearly $80 million in travel-related spending this year, according to the Associated Press.
Anaheim is also facing its own $100 million budget deficit, on top of an unemployment number that reached 15% in mid-September.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles County — where Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain are located — is still in the most-restrictive “purple” tier due to “widespread” risk of coronavirus transmission.
The guidelines give a bit more leeway to smaller amusement parks. They can reopen with modifications when their counties are in the “orange” tier, which is the third most restrictive tier. They will also have capacity limits — up to 25% or 500 guests, whichever is fewer — as well as reservation requirements. However, in the “orange” tier, ticket sales will be limited to people from the county, and only outdoor attractions can open.
“There’s lots of work we can do together — both state, local, business leaders, community leaders, individuals — to do what we can to make sure that we reduce transmission throughout our county, and there is a path forward there,” Ghaly said. “We do not know when, but we do know how, and I think we’ll continue to put in the hard work to get us there one county at a time.”
Two weeks ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom cast doubt on whether the state’s larger theme parks would be allowed to resume operations in the near future.
“We don’t anticipate in the immediate term any of these larger theme parks opening until we see more stability in terms of the data,” Newsom said on earlier this month.