So what happened between the state of California and its theme parks?
The state this week issued reopening guidance that will prevent Disneyland and other major parks from reopening until their counties reach a "minimal" level of Covid exposure — a prospect that might be months away. Park executives balked at that, with Knott's Berry Farm today urging its passholders to write the governor's office in support of reopening the parks sooner.
Sorry to have to say this, but "write your lawmaker" is the last act of desperate campaigners who lack political juice. If you've got pull in your state's capitol, you don't waste your time asking the public to spam lawmakers. So how did it come to this for a multi-billion dollar industry?
Yes, California has taken a harder line toward businesses reopening than many other states. And that's paid off with some of the lowest per capita rates of Covid-19 infections and Covid-related deaths in the nation. But it's not as if California remains on lockdown. Plenty of business sectors and attractions have reopened in the state, including restaurants, shopping malls, card rooms, race tracks, museums, aquariums, zoos, and beaches, as Legoland California Resort President Kurt Stocks detailed in a press conference yesterday put on by the California Attractions and Parks Association.
Why can't theme parks join them?
According to the presentation Tuesday by California Health and Human Service Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, California views theme parks as more dangerous environments for Covid transmission than outdoor stadiums, due to the larger number of people that a theme park visitor presumably would encounter during a visit.
As we quoted in a post last spring, "Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time." Sitting in a stadium, theater, or restaurant, you share the same air with people around you for an hour or more, increasing your risk of infection. But you are seated near a limited number of the same people for that time, so that limits your potential exposure to the virus. After all, if those people you are seated next to are healthy, you're in the clear, no matter how long you sit next to them.
In a theme park, your encounters with other people can be fleeting, especially with the use of virtual queues and mobile ordering that limit your time in line. But you can walk past hundreds, if not thousands, of people during the day. Even if the odds are low that any one person has the virus, the more people you see, the higher your chances for infection get.
The state of California seems to be weighing the "exposure to virus" risk over the "time" risk in deciding to allow outdoor stadiums to open in earlier tiers and at higher capacities than theme parks. That's fair, because we simply don't yet have a strong enough mathematical model for Covid transmission to suggest otherwise. And California's relatively strong performance on containing Covid transmission to date should buy its leaders a fair level of public confidence.
But California theme park leaders have a point when they ask why beaches, zoos, aquariums, and indoor shopping malls are being allowed to operate in higher tiers and at greater capacities than theme parks. People can pass by thousands of others in those environments, too. Heck, SeaWorld San Diego, which is operating as a zoo right now, is also a theme park. How, exactly, is the public being kept safer at SeaWorld right now by not allowing the park to run its outdoor rides and roller coasters when visitors can sit and watch shows and walk through animal exhibits?
When a San Diego reporter asked Dr. Ghaly this question on Tuesday, he ignored it.
Perhaps roller coasters and thrill rides are such strong attractions that they would lure thousands more people into the parks than they might otherwise attract with only animals, plants, and artistic exhibits to offer. Actually, that's almost certainly the case, but parks can limit the number of people they allow through the gates to maintain a safe operating environment. Just increase the number of square feet that a person requires to maintain safe physical distancing within the venue and then do the math to determine a new safe capacity for that venue. Theme parks easily can manage the number of people they admit to conform to these rules.
If the number allowed is too low to enable the park to operate financially, that's another issue. But, frankly, that would not be the state's problem. The state's role in this pandemic is to help protect public health. If businesses cannot operate safely and profitably, then it's the state's job to keep those businesses closed, rather than allow them to operate while putting public health at risk.
I suspect that a large majority of Californians support this view, which I why I do not believe that the theme park industry's emphasis on its economic impact is politically helping its case to reopen. People being out of work is an argument for increasing unemployment assistance, not for allowing businesses to reopen in spite of health risks.
What can help the industry politically is showing the public what parks will do to keep their visitors and communities safe — which is considerable and, by many accounts, effective. But such demonstrations will not help if they are ignored by the people in charge. Universal Studios Hollywood President and COO Karen Irwin levied a disturbing accusation during yesterday's press conference.
"Despite being told that we would see reports and feedback following the state's visits to several of our sites in the last couple of weeks... that didn't happen," Irwin said. "Those reports were never issued."
If California sent inspectors to Florida theme parks under the promise that they would report back to the parks with feedback before issuing the reopening rules, and that did not happen, that would be a bush league move by California Governor Gavin Newsom and Secretary Ghaly. If California leaders were not going to consider what the industry had to show them, they should have had the courage to say that up front, rather than send underlings to put on some meaningless performance. We need to hear the state's response to Irwin's accusation.
But why wouldn't the state take account of how the industry is responding to this outbreak elsewhere? Perhaps because California state officials already have seen first-hand how the state's leading theme parks can be a vector for the spread of infectious disease.
In early 2015, a measles outbreak traced to exposure at Disneyland made national headlines. That link is to an article on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, which notes that dozens of people were infected due to exposure at either Disneyland or Disney California Adventure or secondary exposure from those infected at Disney. Public health officials studied this incident in depth, and I suspect that it remains fresh in the minds of some California leaders as they look to steer us through this pandemic.
Health officials in Florida said they have not traced any Covid-19 outbreaks to exposure in the Orlando-area parks. But it's one thing to trace the source of dozens of measles cases and another to trace millions of Covid-19 infections. One cannot discount that the lack of hits in Florida might have a much to do with deficiencies in tracing as the safety of the parks.
The California theme park industry clearly has not earned the faith of the state's public health leadership. Whether that loss of faith happened during the "Disneyland measles outbreak" or some other point in time ultimately does not matter. The industry does not enjoy that confidence now. If the state's theme parks want to be treated like other business sectors in California, industry leaders need to find a way to earn that faith.
At this point, I don't know how they can do that. But I do know that talking about economic impact won't help. Nor will fan spam campaigns.
From January 2015: What Should Disney Do About the Measles Outbreak?
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