Preliminary plans from an Orange County task force offered a preview of what Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando may implement when they reopen while COVID-19 remains a threat to guests and theme park workers.

However, experts on infectious disease that spoke to Orlando Rising had issues with the proposed policies, questioning the usefulness and practicality of some that were included while leaving other important safety concerns wholly unaddressed. 

The suggestions were offered in an April 28 meeting of the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force as part of a phased reopening plan for businesses. For theme parks, their recommendations included requirements for employees to wear face masks and undergo temperature checks and placing hand sanitizer stations throughout the park. 

‘This is the most superficial thing I’ve ever seen’

Dr. Aileen Marty, a professor at Florida International University, is an expert in the fields of infectious diseases, public health and mass gatherings. In an interview with Orlando Rising, she called the task’s force plans “awful,” saying they failed to account for a variety of factors — such as how employee temperature checks won’t catch infected workers who are either asymptomatic or presymptomatic. 

“They obviously haven’t gone through and made a very careful study,” Marty said of the task force’s plans. “They’ve just put in a few random, though important, points and have not gone into any of the details that could actually help these parks work their way through how to realistically open up in a safe way, and that’s what they need to do.”

Among the details left out of the task force’s plans are how guests will be reminded of these new procedures. There are few requirements suggested specifically for guests; the guidelines make no mention of mandating that thousands of park visitors wear masks, as would be required of park workers.

Certain voluntary recommendations from the task force, like six-foot social distancing in queue spaces, should instead be mandatory, according to Marty. She found other suggestions to be too vague and perhaps unworkable, such as the guideline to wipe down “all railings and surfaces after every use.”

“Things have to be done in a practical manner,” Marty said. “They have to make economic sense and they have to make medical and scientific sense. This is the most superficial thing I’ve ever seen.” 

Defining capacity

Other businesses in Florida and elsewhere plan to reopen with capacity restrictions to minimize the opportunities to spread the COVID-19 virus among large groups. Theme parks would also have to limit the number of visitors, at either 50 percent or 75 percent of capacity, depending on the “phase” of reopening. 

The task force guidelines fail to mention whether those limits will be based on parks’ average attendance or their maximum capacity — a threshold parks rarely hit under normal circumstances. For questions about theme park capacity, Orlando Rising turned to Steve Bloom, a statistician for Touring Plans, a subscription service that offers customizable itineraries to avoid long wait times at Disney and Universal parks. 

Bloom estimated that for 40 to 50 percent of the year, park attendance is already under 50 percent of its maximum capacity. Exceeding the 75 percent capacity threshold is even more rare, Bloom said, with attendance staying below that mark for roughly 80 percent of the year.  

Even at the Magic Kingdom — the most visited theme park in the world — Touring Plans thinks the average daily attendance is probably close to the 50 percent capacity threshold. 

“75 or 50 percent of max capacity is not much of a restriction,” Bloom said. “We expect that Universal and Disney will have to operate much less than 50 percent if social distancing is required.”

A world of unknowns

Considering the COVID-19 virus was only identified at the end of 2019, there’s still plenty we don’t know about it — including how aspects of the theme park experience will affect its transmission. 

“I don’t know how much of the information that we have learned from hospital settings can be applied to a theme park,” Dr. Miguel Reina Ortiz, an assistant professor in the University of South Florida’s department of global health, told Orlando Rising. “There should be a consideration whether being in a high-speed ride or an enclosed ride, whether there should be extra protections,” such as having guests wear face masks.

Public health experts have criticized Florida’s reopening strategy for being deployed too soon in an article from the Tampa Bay Times, with testing still unavailable to most residents and a contact tracing infrastructure yet to be implemented. 

For destination theme park resorts like Disney and Universal, they have to worry about more than Florida. There was no mention in the task force’s recommendations of how theme park tourists would be addressed by the state’s contact tracing system, or of the possibility of limiting entry to in-state residents. 

“I think it would be important to keep an eye on the epidemiological profile of the spread of the virus in different parts of the country and over the world,” Ortiz said. 

All of these policies would only mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19; eliminating that risk is currently impossible, and the parks are losing millions of dollars per month while remaining shuttered. Some are already weighing options above and beyond the task force has suggested. Universal Orlando has circulated a guest survey that has included options such as virtual queues and rapid COVID-19 tests for all visitors.

Having already drafted a statement saying parks will be “permitted to open at their own discretion,” the task force may be content to leave final COVID-19 rules — and how they’re enforced —  up to the parks themselves. 

“Whatever guidelines are used, they have to be enforceable,” Marty said. “Otherwise, it’s quite likely that they’ll fall apart and see increasing cases in these theme parks, since this is a highly contagious virus.”

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