So what does this week's announcement that a potential Covid-19 vaccine was 90 percent effective mean for the theme park and travel industries?
At first glance, it appears to be nothing but good news. Travel and theme park-related stock prices surged after the announcement, with Cedar Fair rising 24 percent yesterday, followed by Six Flags up 18 percent, SeaWorld up 16 percent, Disney up 12 percent, and Universal owner Comcast up 6 percent. Most of those stocks have given back a bit of those gains today, but the financial market clearly sees this vaccine announcement as a sign that the theme park industry is now primed for recovery.
But "primed for recovery" remains a long way from "recovered."
Pfizer's vaccine remains weeks away from approval and even then will go to a very limited number of health care workers and first responders before being dispensed to the general public. Once public vaccinations begin, nursing home patients and other at-risk communities will get their vaccines before anyone who might be planning a theme park vacation in 2021. And, as California Governor Gavin Newsom said in his press conference yesterday, Pfizer's vaccine requires something called "ultra cold storage," meaning that your local grocery or drug store can't just stock palettes of the vaccine on their pharmacy floors, waiting to jab the neighborhood. Deployment may require new transportation and storage facilities. That will take time to develop on a national scale.
All this means that the best-case scenario for the theme park industry won't see widespread availability of the vaccine until the middle of next year — and perhaps even later than that. But even then, widespread availability of a Covid-19 vaccine will not end this pandemic if a large percentage of the public either does not accept it or cannot afford it. That means even more work to be done.
Until enough Americans receive the vaccine that Covid-19 case levels drop to near zero, theme park operations need to remain business as usual. So get ready for continued capacity controls, mandatory mask use, physical distancing, plastic barriers, and bans on large gatherings. Outside the parks, responsible communities need to continue to maintain Covid-preventing health and safety restrictions. If people listen to yesterday's news and decide "Oh, the pandemic is over — we can go back to normal!," hundreds of thousands of more Americans will die as a result of that recklessness... and major parks in California will remain closed.
In an ideal scenario, the promise of the vaccine coming next year will motivate people do better following Covid rules in the meantime, wearing their masks whenever they leave the house and minimizing their contact with people outside their households. That could help reverse this growing surge in Covid infections, allowing a vaccine deployment to knock out this pandemic in the United States months before it could if infection rates were still rising.
While that could help salvage a good season for regional theme parks next summer and fall, parks such as Disney and Universal that draw large international crowds won't see complete recovery until the pandemic is controlled in South America, Europe, and Asia, too, allowing international borders reopen fully.
As Winston Churchill said of the Second Battle of El Alamein, "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
And that is welcomed news.
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