A day after discussing preliminary guidelines for how theme parks can operate amid COVID-19 pandemic, the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force is leaving the decision about when to reopen. 

“Theme parks and other venues of that magnitude shall each develop their own specific and unique set of guidelines following the CDC recommendations and using best practices that will protect the life, health, and safety of their employees and guests,” said Chuck Whittal, co-chair of the task force’s “Guidelines for Reopening Business” working group and president of real estate developer Unicorp. “They will be permitted to open at their own discretion with their internally determined level of safe capacities throughout the various phases.”

Whittal later added: “Ultimately, they’re going to be judged by the marketplace. If their guests feel safe, they’re going to show up, if they don’t, they’re not.”

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings agreed, suggesting that parts of large theme park properties, such as restaurants, could open more quickly, just as other, smaller businesses can reopen with appropriate precautions and social distancing. 

“They certainly have the ability to phase in opening,” Demings said. “I know they’ll follow those guidelines because of their corporate responsibility and potential liability and exposure.”

Theme parks are not included in phase one of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to reopen businesses around the state, but restaurants and retail locations can begin operating on Monday at 25 percent capacity. 

As of Wednesday, Florida has reported 33,193 cases of COVID-19 among Florida residents, including 1,218 deaths. 335 new cases and 26 new deaths were reported on Tuesday. Orange County has confirmed 1,371 cases and 33 deaths.

Small groups of protesters across the country, including in Florida, have been pushing for an end to restrictions and stay-at-home orders, despite repeated warnings from public health experts that some states are moving too quickly and risk unleashing a second wave of infections. 

The economic pressure is more acutely felt in Central Florida and its tourism-dependent economy. Getting Orlando’s theme parks reopen will also benefit the larger travel industry, as evidenced by Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly’s comments in a CNBC interview on Tuesday.

If people are going to travel again, Kelly said “they need to have something to be able to do when they get there. So Disney World needs to open back up. Restaurants need to open back up.”

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, however, cautioned that reopening plans do not mean that COVID-19 has been defeated. 

“Our work isn’t over and while these plans will provide a path to gradually and safely restart our economy, they must not lure us into thinking that we’re going to go back into business as normal because the virus is still going to be here and life is not normal,” Dyer said. “The hard truth is that we are building a new normal and it will be a different way of life for everyone and a different way of doing things to keep us all safe.”

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