ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, and other large theme parks in California can reopen at 25% capacity only when their county is in the state’s yellow or least restrictive tier that monitors coronavirus cases, according to guidance unveiled by the state Tuesday.
Professional live sporting events in the state can also resume, only at 20% capacity, and when the county they operate in is at least in the state’s orange tier or moderate tier level.
California health officials on Tuesday finally unveiled their much-awaited health and safety guidelines to reopen theme parks and live sporting events in the state, but many theme park operators such as the Walt Disney Co., business and city leaders immediately lambasted it.
“This is not a road map,” Anaheim Chamber of Commerce President Todd Ament said. “This is a death sentence.”
After months of pressure from Disney and various business groups and studying the theme park and professional sports industry, the state finally released guidelines to bring visitors back to theme parks and sporting events.
Under the state’s new guidance, large theme park operators that have more than a 15,000 visitor capacity must wait until its home county’s coronavirus risk level is at the state's yellow tier, which allows for the reopening of most if not all businesses in that county. Once they can reopen, they must limit capacity to 25%, require the use of face masks, implement an advance ticket sale system, and follow other strict screening and social distancing guidelines.
Smaller theme parks can reopen when their home county is in the orange tier. Capacity will also be limited to 25% or 500 people max, and only outdoor attractions can be open. Additionally, ticket sales can only be purchased by visitors who live in the same county as the theme park.
Live professional sporting events such as a Rams or Chargers game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood can have fans in the stands at 20% capacity only when Los Angeles County is in at least the orange tier.
Collegiate, high school, and other youth sporting events are still prohibited by the state, according to California Health and Human Services Agency Dr. Mark Ghaly, who led the call.
Ghaly said theme parks have a higher risk setting than an outdoor sports stadium. Ghaly said the state sent teams of health officials to tour opened operating theme parks across the nation last week. Though the team saw things they like about how lines were managed, they also saw a lot of risks with the crowds.
"There were some things that raised some concern," Ghaly said. "The level of mixing, even without masks, that seemed very random and concerning to us."
Ghaly added, unlike visitors to sports games, theme park visitors tend to be from a broad (national and international) geographic base, visit for a number of days, and often walk around in groups and can't be controlled to wear masks. Meanwhile, sports stadiums visitors usually come from the same geographic base, stay in a preassigned seat, and only visit for a few hours.
However, under the state’s strict standards, it is unclear when theme parks and live sporting events can ever resume.
Currently, Orange County – where Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm are located – is in the state’s red tier or tier 2, meaning there is still a substantial risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Los Angeles County, where SoFi Stadium, Universal Studios Hollywood, and Six Flags Magic Mountain are located, remains in the purple tier, or tier 1, the state’s most restrictive tier.
“There is a path forward,” Ghaly said when asked about when these theme parks can reopen. “We don’t know when, but we know how.”
But it can take weeks, months, or years until the counties can get their coronavirus case numbers under control. As of Tuesday, California has recorded more than 881,675 cases and 17,012 deaths. While other states across the nation have seen an increase in cases and hospitalizations, California has been able to keep its cases steady, Ghaly said.
"Because of our working together, it came down nicely," Ghaly said of the state's coronavirus cases. "So far, we have not seen those increases."
Still, as the state's cases remain steady, businesses that rely on theme parks' visitors are shutting down.
Orange County Health Care Agency County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said on Tuesday he doesn’t expect Orange County to reach the yellow tier until next summer.
Disney, the California Attractions and Parks Association (CAPA), local business, and city leaders criticized the reopening guidelines.
With the exception of Anaheim, Disney has reopened all of its other theme parks around the world.
“We have proven that we can responsibly reopen with science-based health and safety protocols strictly enforced at our theme park properties around the world,” Disneyland President Ken Potrock said in a statement. “Nevertheless, the state of California continues to ignore this fact, instead mandating arbitrary guidelines that it knows are unworkable and that hold us to a standard vastly different from other reopened businesses and state-operated facilities.”
Potrock said Disneyland, which has been closed since March, wants to get people back to work. The shutdown has forced Disney to lay off 28,000 employees in Anaheim, Walt Disney World in Florida, and Walt Disney Imagineering.
“Together with our labor unions we want to get people back to work, but these state guidelines will keep us shuttered for the foreseeable future, forcing thousands more people out of work, leading to the inevitable closure of small family-owned businesses, and irreparably devastating the Anaheim/Southern California community," Potrock said.
CAPA Executive Director Erin Guerrero called the state's reopening plan the “Keep Theme Parks Closed Indefinitely Plan."
"[This] will devastate California’s major theme park industry," Guerrero said in a statement. “This plan prolongs unemployment for tens of thousands of people, hastens bankruptcy for families and small business owners adjacent to parks, and contributes to insolvency for local governments whose budgets rely on parks as an anchor economic driver."
In a Zoom call for media with local business leaders after the state's press conference, Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu said businesses in Anaheim can't wait another six months to a year for Disneyland to reopen. Many businesses are struggling now and on the brink of shutting down, he said.
"Disneyland can survive. The city of Anaheim can survive, but other businesses, restaurants [that rely on Disney] can't survive," Sidhu said. "That means thousands of jobs and livelihoods can be taken away."