Disneyland’s push to reopen sets up critical moment in California’s coronavirus fight

The entrance to Disneyland, empty of people
The entrance to Disneyland on Wednesday, a day after company officials announced layoffs resulting from the coronavirus-induced closure of the theme park.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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A growing chorus of businesses small and large has been desperately lobbying California officials to reopen this fall as they struggle to survive after months of coronavirus shutdowns.

This week, they got an ally with undeniable star power.

The Walt Disney Co., one of the world’s largest entertainment companies, partially blamed California’s strict reopening rules for massive layoffs in its theme park division after trying unsuccessfully to get officials to allow the gates of Disneyland to swing open again.

Disney’s blunt criticism is putting more pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom and health officials at a critical moment.


The state’s first attempt at reopening led to a major surge in COVID-19, and Newsom has vowed to move more cautiously this time and listen only to the science. His reopening plan omits theme parks altogether, though officials said guidelines will be released this week.

Bradley Pollock, chairman of the Department of Public Health Sciences at UC Davis, said waiting on the state for guidance is undoubtedly frustrating for theme park operators, but that Newsom and his staff are confronting an extremely difficult calculus in determining the size and pace of reopenings.

Keeping businesses closed deals a major blow to the economy and to large swaths of society that may lose their livelihoods, he said. But any reopenings will increase interactions between people, lead to more cases of the coronavirus, and more deaths, he said.

“It’s not a question of if, but rather, how much?” he said. “The virus hasn’t changed. ... When you have people who can gather physically closer together, you increase the risk. Is it worth it?”

Complicating matters is that some states are beginning to see a new surge in coronavirus cases that experts fear could eventually arrive in California. That would come at the same time as a flu season already expected to make COVID-19 more difficult to manage.

In some parts of the state, including San Francisco and other, more rural, areas, businesses are beginning to reopen as cases plummet. But it’s been slower going in Southern California, frustrating business owners and some local officials.


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Los Angeles County announced Wednesday that shopping centers and nail salons will be allowed to resume indoor operations with limited capacity over the next 10 days. But there has been much debate about whether the region is reopening too quickly given the health risks, or not quickly enough given the economic woes.

Disney announced that it would lay off 28,000 staff members across its parks, cruises and retail stores because of the pandemic. Though the cuts affect employees across the U.S., executives cited in their decision California’s “unwillingness to lift restrictions that would allow Disneyland to reopen.”

Jocelyn Campos makes pizza at her family's restaurant
Jocelyn Campos makes pizza at her family’s restaurant, which has lost business since Disneyland has been closed.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The pushback from the corporation is part of a much larger, growing pressure that communities around California are facing as businesses grapple with a make-or-break fall after months of slashed revenue.

Jocelyn Campos said her family’s restaurant, a mile from Disneyland and typically a popular spot with park visitors, can probably survive only six more months with business down by 40% since the shutdown.

“We’re going to do everything in our power, but all we can do is cross our fingers that the customers return,” Campos said.


Disney, one of the largest employers in the state, has been severely hobbled by the coronavirus health crisis. In April, the company said it was furloughing more than 100,000 workers after the pandemic forced the company to shut down its theme parks. Disney also cut expenses, slashed executive pay and suspended major projects to save money.

In June, Disneyland announced plans to reopen but Newsom and his advisors persuaded park officials to hold off.

Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger has been in direct contact with Newsom throughout the outbreak and is a key member of Newsom’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery, which was created in April to guide the state’s financial recovery and create jobs.

However, the prolonged shutdown became financially unsustainable for Disney, said Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney’s parks, experiences and products segment, in a memo to staff on Tuesday.

“As heartbreaking as it is to take this action, this is the only feasible option we have in light of the prolonged impact of COVID-19 on our business,” D’Amaro said.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s Health and Human Services secretary, said the Newsom administration expects to release guidance this week for the reopening of theme parks across the state. The extent of reopenings may depend on the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in the counties where they are located.


State public health officials have been meeting with amusement park representatives since the outbreak first began, with recent talks focused on the complex natures of those attractions, which have drawn millions of visitors annually.

Ghaly noted that initially, Disneyland and other parks were not expected to open until the final stage of the pandemic recovery, when herd immunity was established.

“When you think about an amusement park, there’s components that are indoor and outdoor and there’s different things, like there’s water rides,” Ghaly said Wednesday. “People usually come to the parks for weekends or weeks. It’s a family event. You’re in hotels and restaurants. If you keep your guard up while you’re in the park, you may take your guard down when it comes to transmission in all these related activities.”

Ghaly said the announced layoffs at the Walt Disney Co., as well as the economic toll on other businesses across the state, have weighed heavily on every decision made by both the Newsom administration and local public health officials.

“Nobody has a playbook on this,” Ghaly said. “Ideally, the way that we look at this is that our choices around controlling transmission are in fact, helping us set up for more success moving our economy forward.”

But not everyone is treating theme parks this way. In July, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., was allowed to reopen. However, that Florida allowed Disney World to reopen should not be taken as a sign that Newsom should charge forward, Pollock said.


“They seem to have more tolerance for outbreaks,” Pollock said of Florida. “Do I blame the governor here for being more conservative? No.”

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He added, however, that the opening of Disney World serves as a “natural experiment” testing whether the theme park will become a hotbed for cases. So far, that hasn’t appeared to be the case, he said.

“Nothing helps explain risk like history and the facts. So they opened up their theme parks, they did it under very carefully controlled conditions, and there hasn’t been a spike,” he said. “So I think that theoretically, they may be able to reopen safely here.”

Glynndana Shevlin, who has worked at the Disneyland Resort for 32 years, said she felt shocked by news of the layoffs. Her union, Unite Here Local 11, expects 950 of its 3,000 members who work at the resort to be laid off on Nov. 1.

“I’m in limbo right now,” she said. “Of course we want to reopen and work, but it has to be done safely.”

A hotel manager stands in an empty lobby
Ziaul Islam Syed, general manager at Days Inn & Suites, looks out the window from his empty hotel lobby.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The closure of Disneyland has had ripple effects throughout the city of Anaheim, where it is the largest employer. Unemployment in the city is at 12%, the same as during the Great Recession, according to Mayor Harry Sidhu.

“This is not a choice between public health and the economy,” he said in a statement. “There is a safe, responsible middle path ... We need to begin restoring our economy in a way that protects public health and also allows people to support their families.”

Before the shutdown, the Days Inn & Suites by Wyndham Anaheim at Disneyland Park was often booked, full of families enjoying the theme park. Now, the hotel is at only about 20% occupancy, said general manager Ziaul Islam Syed.

Syed helped manage the front desk on Wednesday, a change due to shifting roles during the pandemic. The hotel used to be often fully booked, but now they are barely scraping by, he said.

“We’re cancelling more bookings than we’re getting,” Syed said.

Karlamangla reported from Los Angeles, Willon from Sacramento and Lai from Anaheim. Times staff writer Taryn Luna contributed to this report.