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Orange County mayors call on governor to let Disneyland and Knott’s reopen

Disneyland in March
People walk toward Disneyland’s entrance March 13, the park’s last day of operation before the pandemic forced its closure.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Six months after theme parks closed across California because of the pandemic, Orange County politicians, trade-worker union leaders and tourism promoters expressed frustration that the state has yet to give Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm a path to reopen.

“It’s a disaster right here,” Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu said at a Wednesday news conference, joining the mayors of Buena Park and Garden Grove on a hotel rooftop overlooking Disneyland. “How long are you going to keep us closed?”

Their ire was directed at Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said Wednesday that state officials were working on health protocols for reopening theme parks and that there would be “announcements soon” but did not specify when.

The demand for protocols came the day after a coalition of California theme parks, including Disneyland and Knott’s, also urged the state to release guidelines under which they could join parks in Florida and elsewhere in reopening.

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The cities around Disneyland have lost $1.3 billion in taxes and other revenues since the pandemic closures began, said Todd Ament, president of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. “The time is now to reopen our theme parks and restore the economic vitality we have lost,” he said.

It was the meeting of unusual circumstances that pushed local elected officials to demand change to a state health mandate and aligned union leaders with their members’ bosses.

The Disneyland Resort is Orange County’s largest employer, with about 31,000 workers before the pandemic. It draws tourists who book hotel rooms, eat at restaurants and buy souvenirs, supporting jobs throughout the region. All told, the resort generates 3.6% of all jobs in the county, according to a recent Cal State Fullerton study.

With unemployment high, prospects for a new federal relief package uncertain and the state’s unemployment relief measures not bridging the gap, cities, residents and businesses are feeling the pinch.

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Walt Disney Co. has a history of political heft, especially in Disneyland’s hometown of Anaheim. In many ways, the resort’s financial interests and the city’s are intertwined; Disney is far and away Anaheim’s biggest tourism magnet. For years, Anaheim gave subsidies, incentives and rebates to the company for investing in its theme parks and adjacent Downtown Disney shopping district — a practice that halted in 2018. Disney has also backed candidates in local elections, including Sidhu.

Meanwhile, Orange County has been a stronghold for critics of COVID-19 safety measures.

The county’s then-health chief, Dr. Nichole Quick, resigned in June amid death threats and harsh public criticism for issuing an order requiring people to wear face coverings while in public places, at work or visiting businesses.

Quick’s replacement, Dr. Clayton Chau, swiftly revised her mandate, strongly recommending that people wear masks but not requiring it. Newsom intervened a week later, making face coverings mandatory statewide.

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Over the summer, Orange County education leaders approved school-reopening guidelines that don’t require masks for students or increased distancing between people in classrooms. Their recommendation stands, but school districts are free to enforce stricter measures.

Orange County lawmakers, tourism officials and union leaders who called for the reopening of Disneyland Resort and Knott’s Berry Farm argued that the number of COVID-19 cases in the county has dropped far enough that the parks can reopen safely.

“Our work against the coronavirus is not done, but we have another crisis that demands our attention,” Sidhu said, noting that the unemployment rate in his city is 15% and that Anaheim faces a $100-million deficit partly from the loss of tax revenue generated by Disneyland Resort.

“This is about preserving and retaining union jobs,” said Ernesto Medrano, a representative for the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council. “We don’t want any more layoffs. It’s time to go back to work.”

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Data from the Orange County Health Care Agency show that coronavirus cases in the county have dropped from highs in late July and early August, when the agency reported about 1,000 new cases and more than 10 deaths a day. On Wednesday, the county reported 135 new cases and six deaths.

In total, Orange County has reported more than 51,200 cases and 1,100 coronavirus deaths.

Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of public health at UC Irvine, agreed that COVID-19 case numbers in Orange County have improved but said he would feel more comfortable about opening the theme parks once coronavirus cases drop even further.

“It’s tricky at best to open up something like a Disneyland or a Knott’s Berry Farm now,” he said. “I personally would not go to a theme park.”

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Supporters of reopening say theme parks in Florida have reopened without triggering surges in COVID-19 cases, but Noymer said it is difficult to confirm whether the virus has been passed at theme parks because many parkgoers return home to other states and countries.

Parks are “going to draw people from all over the place,” he said. “There are just too many unknowns to be fully confident about reopening.”

Theme park representatives made assurances Wednesday that if the parks are allowed to reopen they can impose strict safety protocols to protect the health of visitors.

“We have proven we can operate responsibly, with strict health and safety protocols at our properties around the world and at Downtown Disney in Anaheim,” Ken Potrock, president of Disneyland Resort, said in a statement, referring to the Disneyland-adjacent shopping district that reopened in July.

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Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park noted that it has also opened its restaurants and hosted food tasting events over the last few months while meeting county health protocols.

It said in a statement that it’s “prepared to work with the state of California and the Orange County Health Care Agency to meet and exceed the necessary guidelines and requirements for reopening our theme park.”

In Los Angeles County, Disneyland’s biggest rival, Universal Studios Hollywood, is also pushing for a path to reopen.

“We have prepared a comprehensive program that benefits from the experience we have gained reopening our other theme parks in the United States and around the world,” Karen Irwin, president and chief operating officer of Universal Studios Hollywood, said in a statement. “We are absolutely ready to reopen with enhanced health and safety protocols.”


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