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‘Inviting Disaster’: Disney World Reopening Inspires Worry From Health Experts, Optimism From Some Workers

Magic Kingdom, Disneyworld, Disney World, Orlando,
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Before Krysta White heads to her job as an attraction host at the Animal Kingdom Park in Orlando, Fla., she takes her temperature at home. The 32-year-old makes sure she’s feeling well, checking against a list of symptoms — coughing, shortness of breath, muscle pain, sore throat, nausea, diarrhea or vomiting — that would prohibit her from going to work.

When White gets to the park, she clocks in and has her temperature taken once more before she can head to her post at Pandora – The World of Avatar, the fantastical area based on the hit James Cameron film. A face shield tops her face mask as she shepherds visitors on and off rides.

It’s great, she says good-naturedly, because she no longer has to put on a full face of makeup.

Disney World, which called White and others back to work in recent weeks, reopens to the public this Saturday. (Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom will lead the way, followed by Hollywood Studios and Epcot on July 15.) It has promised a safer experience for the eager Disney enthusiasts clamoring to reenter after many months cooped up indoors. While several employees (“cast members,” as the company calls them) who spoke to Variety were optimistic about the precautions that the theme parks have taken to keep staff and guests safe, not all Disney workers were convinced. And one epidemiologist warns that reopening Disney World at this particular moment would make the park “the happiest place on Earth… for the coronavirus.”

Dr. Anne Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and the leader of the UCLA COVID-19 Rapid Response Initiative, says it is a “terrible idea to be opening right now,” particularly as the number of coronavirus cases are surging in Florida. The state, which as of Thursday recorded 232,718 coronavirus cases and over 4,000 deaths so far, recently extended the state of emergency for another 60 days.

“There are several hospitals that are running out of beds in Florida, with health workers warning that there are not going to be enough ventilators and enough rooms, and cases in the state are breaking new records daily,” said Rimoin. “Moving forward with reopening, I think, is inviting disaster. I’m not sure that’s what the world is looking for right now.”

Rimoin says that anyone considering visiting a theme park who is over the age of 60, has a preexisting condition, is in an otherwise vulnerable population, or is around anyone in any of those categories, “should definitely stay home… which is basically everybody. It just seems like a very irresponsible thing to do.”

White, who is immuno-compromised and therefore at high risk for the virus, has “mixed feelings” about the reopening, but remains positive about her employer.

“I’m always going to be apprehensive,” she said. “If I’m not sitting inside my house, I’m going be apprehensive. But what I can tell you is that I can’t think of anything that Disney could have possibly done to make this a safer situation for the cast members. I think that they did all the right things.”

Despite the potential dangers to the public health, there are also economic realities that workers continue to face as the pandemic stretches well into the summer.

Diego Henry, a 34-year-old attraction host who has worked at the parks for more than six years, says many of his colleagues are struggling financially and have not received any unemployment checks. He attributes this to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “lackadaisical approach” to the state’s unemployment system, whose problems and backlogs have been well documented by local news outlets.

“In the state of Florida, it is what it is. We have to open up; a lot of cast members can’t stay on unemployment. The Florida unemployment system is in shambles,” said Henry. But Disney, he said, has gone “above and beyond… They’re making sure we’re all taken care of.”

He understands that some people may not yet feel comfortable visiting the theme parks, but Disney’s employees don’t have the luxury of that option.

“They have families, they have to put food on the table, and unemployment and DeSantis are not making sure that happens one way, so everybody goes back to work,” said Henry.

Around 20,000 of the 43,000 workers represented by the Service Trades Council Union have been called back to work, said Ella Wood, a research analyst at Unite Here Central Florida.

Notably, both Henry and White say they feel safer at Disney than they would at a local grocery store, where not everyone wears masks, or doesn’t wear them properly.

At the parks, a slew of new health and safety protocols are in place. New hand washing stations have popped up and there is “hand sanitizer everywhere,” said Henry. He and his colleagues responsibly socially distance at lunchtime — where before there were five co-workers at a break-room table chatting about their day, there is now more likely to be one person sitting solo, talking to a co-worker another table over, he said.

When asked if he might have felt differently about returning to work if Florida’s unemployment system were more robust and better functioning, Henry said that if he hadn’t seen how Disney handled the reopening, then “Maybe.”

“Disney has shown that they understand the severity of this pandemic, unlike the governor, so, you know, I’m going to follow the person who’s going to allow me to take care of my family and be safe, versus take my chances with unemployment,” he said.

But the entertainment conglomerate, too, has a massive economic stake in the success of reviving its global flagship theme park. For each month its parks are closed, Bernstein equity analyst Todd Juenger estimates that the financial impact to Disney is $1 billion in lost earnings before income and taxes. Last year, the company’s U.S. parks alone brought in about $4.4 billion in revenue during the June quarter, said Cowen’s Doug Creutz.

Meanwhile, testing for the virus has become a contentious issue. Disney is not offering its park employees COVID-19 tests, but multiple sources say that the company-provided insurance covers testing, should cast members seek it out on their own. According to a person familiar with the situation, Disney has evaluated the idea of testing and is instead focusing on other prevention measures that include reduced attendance levels, social distancing, masks, increased cleaning, and temperature checks.

The lack of company-mandated testing has proved to be a dealbreaker for Actors’ Equity Association, the union that represents Disney World’s performers and has called publicly for the need for coronavirus testing for park staff. The organization filed a grievance against Disney on Thursday — the conglomerate is “retaliating” against Equity members, it says, by rescinding notices calling performers back to work.

A Disney spokesperson said that seven unions, representing 48,000 workers, had signed agreements to have their employees return to work. Actors’ Equity, it responded, “rejected our safety protocols and have not made themselves available to continue negotiations, which is unfortunate. We are exercising our right to open without Equity performers.”

But offering testing “would certainly provide some assistance because testing, and being able to have access to testing, is critical,” said Dr. Rimoin. The issue is that in practice, testing is a complicated task when taking into account the possibility of asymptomatic infection, not to mention the length of wait times to both take the test and get those results.

Rimoin, a native Southern Californian whose childhood was “inextricably intertwined with going to Disneyland,” understands the emotional significance of visiting the theme parks. But the timing of going to Disney World, while the country is “literally in the grips of the pandemic… is a questionable idea.”

She feels similarly about the prospect of opening Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., which is setting its sights on resuming business at some point. The number of COVID-19 patients who have been hospitalized in California’s Orange County, where the park is based, spiked 97% over the last three weeks, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Workers United Local 50 president Chris Duarte said that, among the Disneyland union members he has heard from, there is “definite hesitancy on going back to work.” He believes that “without an adequate testing plan in place, safety feels compromised.”

One Disneyland employee, who prefers to remain anonymous due to fears of professional retaliation, was recently called back to work to the Southern California park. He worries about complacency and forgetfulness impacting the level of mask compliance among staff and visitors.

“That complacency could lead to the spread of infection when we have this many people in one place,” he told Variety.

And how employees are supposed to enforce mask-wearing while visitors are on a high-flying ride like California Adventure’s Soarin’ Over California, for instance, is still a question mark.

“I definitely am concerned with the indoor locations in the park, [and it is] harder to regulate guests when they’re on an attraction,” he said. “What happens if a guest loses their mask while they’re on a ride?”

For would-be Disney World visitors who cannot be persuaded to stay home, Dr. Rimoin advises them to wear a mask, practice good hygiene, socially distance, and stay away from crowds.

“You should not be in an enclosed space with other people, and certainly not with other people yelling and screaming,” she said, before adding, “How are you going to do that with Pirates of the Caribbean?”

Earlier this week, a Wall Street Journal story about a Japanese amusement park garnered plenty of bemused attention for the venue’s request for masked rollercoaster riders to “Please scream inside your heart,” in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“I worry about that kind of stuff with guests because it’s something that’s kind of natural,” said the unnamed Disneyland employee. “They might not be screaming; they might be singing. People sing on our rides all the time. That’s going to be hard to regulate, I think. I can’t imagine Gov. Newsom saying, ‘No singing on Peter Pan’s Flight.”

Noting the cultural differences in the U.S. versus those of guests at the Shanghai or Hong Kong Disney resorts, he wonders how American visitors, who are used to “challenging” Disney, will adapt.

“I think we’ll find out from Florida, to be honest, how it goes,” he said.