The CDC's New Rules Are a Big Mess for Disney

May 14, 2021, 12:36 PM · I do not envy anyone working at Disney's theme parks right now.

Yesterday's "very big news" from the CDC, as Disney CEO Bob Chapek called it, creates a very big headache for Disney's theme park operations. While it's great news that science has confirmed that vaccinated people can gather in public without masks without danger of spreading Covid-19, unvaccinated people remain at risk. That creates a challenge for any responsible business - including theme parks - that welcomes people from both the vaccinated and unvaccinated communities.

It's especially challenging for Disney, who has built its business on family entertainment. No one under age 12 is vaccinated, and kids ages 12-15 were approved for vaccinations just this week. Any family destination therefore is going to include a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated guests for at least the next several months.

How do you safely accommodate both? Do you continue your pandemic rules and keep requiring vaccinated people to wear masks and maintain physical distancing unnecessarily in order to maintain consistency for all guests? Or do you ditch the rules for everyone and therefore put unvaccinated people at risk?

Or do you try to maintain two sets of rules - one for vaccinated guests and another for those unvaccinated? And if you choose that option, how do you determine who is in which group so you can enforce the rules for unvaccinated guests?

The easiest logistical solution is just to go for the honor system, as Hersheypark did today. Yet the Venn diagram of adults who have refused to get vaccinated for Covid and those who have refused to wear masks during this pandemic overlaps enough to be almost a single circle. With an honor system, you're just inviting Covid deniers to lie about their vaccination status to get out of wearing a mask or keeping their distance.

Whether someone does or does not get Covid comes down to probability. What are the chances that you encounter someone with Covid? And if you do, what are the chances that you breathe in the virus from that person and it infects you?

Without masks and physical distancing, the chances that an unvaccinated person will catch Covid from an infected person go up dramatically. But so long as unvaccinated people can avoid being around an infected person, they will remain safe.

This why Covid, and other infectious diseases, spread in waves. With few infected people in a community, the chances of any given person catching the disease remain low. But if chance brings an infected person into a cluster of people, the virus spreads and the odds of any given person getting the disease grow. More and more people then catch it, infecting more and more people. Eventually, enough people get scared by the outbreak and retreat home that transmissions decline and we get to the other side of the wave.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Bringing hundreds or thousands of unvaccinated people together in any space raises the risk of another Covid wave, so long as Covid remains active in a community. Bringing them together without masks or distancing raises that risk even more. A cynic might argue that if you choose not to get vaccinated, you have assumed that risk. But young children cannot get vaccinated yet, and while the death and disability rates for children have been lower than for adults, kids do die from this disease. Kids are left disabled by it. A lot of parents do not want to put their children at risk for Covid, especially now when the end of this pandemic might be in sight.

To protect its family audience, Disney will need to convince parents that its theme parks remains safe for unvaccinated children even as rules change. Yet the CDC's simplistic new rules provide little guidance how to do that. Does a park require proof of vaccination from guests ages 12 and older, then either deny admission to those who cannot provide it or somehow mark them so that employees can enforce mask and distancing rules upon them?

And what about those distancing rules? Do you have one spaced queue or theater section for unvaccinated people and another unspaced one for those who have been vaccinated? What about families with vaccinated parents and unvaccinated kids? Which queue or theater section do they go in, or is there a third one for them?

Then what do you do in states that have passed idiotic rules that prohibit businesses from asking customers for proof of vaccination? Are you just left to operate as if no one is vaccinated then? Or do businesses just abdicate any responsibility to help stop Covid's spread?

Again, I don't envy anyone who has to make operational decisions in an environment such as this. It's a mess.

That said, if I were running things, I would dump the mask and distancing rules at Disneyland in California in favor of demanding proof of vaccination to visit the parks. (Incentive to get vaccinated!) Kids under age 12 would have to wear masks, however. In Florida, I would keep the mask and distancing rules at Walt Disney World until the state allowed businesses to require proof of vaccination, then I would switch to the California rules. (How much pressure would that create on Florida's government?) Then when kids can get vaccinated or Covid deaths fall to zero in the community for an extended period, drop the mask and distancing rules for everyone.

Ideally, enough people will get vaccinated that Covid infections will continue to fall and a herd immunity will take over enough communities so that all these questions will become moot. This has been a brutal year-plus for all of us, and I know that emotions remain frayed. But while things are improving, the pandemic is not yet over. (And I haven't even mentioned international travel.) It would be tragic to lose the progress than America has made toward ending this pandemic over the past four months. So some tough decisions remain to be made.

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