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Before letting California theme parks reopen, Newsom is looking out of state

Walt Disney World reopening
Walt Disney World in Florida reopened July 11. California theme parks remain shut because of the pandemic.
(Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom, aiming for an eventual safe reopening of California theme parks, said Monday that he was sending a team of people to parks open in other states to learn what precautions they are taking to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

The governor has yet to offer a timeline for when he will allow large theme parks such as Disneyland and SeaWorld to resume operations, but he made clear Monday that he remains concerned about the potential for virus transmission from out-of-state visitors. At the same time, he said he wants to continue working with California parks on a plan for letting them reopen. They have been shut since mid-March.

Although there have been news reports that parks outside California have not experienced outbreaks among workers or guests after reopening, Newsom said he wants an assessment from his own staff.

“We’re doing our own stubborn research,” he told reporters Monday. “Because this is serious.... We’re entering not just the flu season but we’re entering into a period of time where people are more likely to start congregating and mixing back indoors.”

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The latest maps and charts on the spread of COVID-19 in California.

California Health and Human Services Agency spokeswoman Kate Folmar said her agency sent health officials last week to assess reopened theme parks, including Walt Disney World in Florida.

In addition, a delegation that includes the state Department of Public Health, Cal/OSHA and the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development plans to visit California parks this week in collaboration with the operators, Folmar said. “These visits will help inform our pending theme park guidance,” she said.

News of the site visits was warmly received by the California Attractions and Parks Assn., which — citing the economy and jobs — has been pushing the governor’s office for permission to reopen amusement parks statewide.

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“Fighting the pandemic and responsible reopening can occur simultaneously,” the association said in a statement. “We applaud the governor for accepting our invitation to visit California’s iconic parks, and we are eager to work together so theme parks can reopen responsibly and soon.”

Months ago, California theme parks prepared a set of reopening guidelines they say should have enabled them to safely invite guests back to their properties. Florida began letting parks reopen in June, and Disney parks from Shanghai to Paris have also opened to guests after closing for several months this year due to the coronavirus.

California had been poised to issue reopening guidelines this month but backed away after sharp criticism of the new rules from the theme parks. The parks were especially concerned about a restriction that would have limited their guests to those living within a 120-mile radius of each park.

Newsom told reporters last week that he did not anticipate any of the large parks reopening “until we see more stability in terms of the data.”

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On Monday, he reiterated his concern about the possibility that the virus would spread at theme parks, which he likened to small cities that attract visitors from around the world. “I am very sober about the responsibility ... to keep people safe and at the same time balance the economic imperative of reopening with modifications,” Newsom said. “I want to make sure we get this right.”

Disney recently reported that it is laying off 28,000 U.S. employees, a move it said was “exacerbated” by California’s shutdown.

Andrew Noymer, associate professor of population health and disease prevention at UC Irvine, said he believes it is possible to reopen theme parks in California by imposing some major changes to the way they operate. But he added that he doesn’t see any harm in waiting until the governor’s representatives investigate the conditions at other parks.

“If he is sincere that he wants the information, I don’t see any harm,” he said. “It sounds reasonable to me.”

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Disneyland said Monday that it has no objections to Newsom’s plan to investigate the pandemic conditions at theme parks. “We welcome the opportunity to showcase our responsible health and safety protocols,” Disneyland spokeswoman Liz Jaeger said.

Universal Studios Hollywood said its parent company has worked with health officials to reopen theme parks in Florida and Asia and is ready to use what was learned in those parks to reopen its park in Los Angeles.

In San Diego, SeaWorld was able to partially reopen in late August when the marine park got authorization to do so under state guidelines for zoos and aquariums, which meant limitations on the capacity for outdoor exhibits and animal shows. Reservations are required, and rides remain closed.

The Legoland park in Carlsbad remains closed, but it has reopened its Sea Life aquarium. The park is also holding weekend Halloween-themed events, inviting families to come dressed in costumes and participate in activities.

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Last month, Disney officials suggested that if its Anaheim parks were allowed to reopen, they would have hand-washing stations, offer attendance by reservation only, add a team of designated employees to enforce face-covering requirements, mandate temperature checks for all guests, expand the use of mobile food ordering and put stickers on the ground to remind park-goers to keep their distance from one another.

Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor in the division of infectious diseases at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, said the governor’s plan to investigate other theme parks makes sense, but he worries that it will be difficult to determine whether the steps taken at other parks are directly responsible for preventing coronavirus outbreaks.

“With so much COVID transmission going on, how do you know if Person A got it at Epcot [at Walt Disney World in Florida] or at some shopping center,” he said.

Martín is a Times staff writer. Weisberg writers for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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