Last October, employees from the administration of California Gov. Gavin Newsom visited Walt Disney World and other Orlando theme parks. The purpose: to inspect those parks’ COVID-19 operations ahead of issuing California’s guidelines for reopening its own parks, including Disneyland. 

“I want folks to come back and tell me what they saw, what their own experience was,” Newsom said on Oct. 12. “Because this is serious.”

Eight days later, Newsom released guidelines that the theme park industry certainly did not want to hear.

Under his plan — still in place today — theme parks could not reopen until their home counties entered the “Yellow,” or “Minimal” tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy. This means counties have to report less than one new COVID-19 case per day per 100,000 population and a test positivity rate of under 2 percent. 

The stringent guidelines were immediately criticized by the industry, even to the point of threatening lawsuits, and opposed by the mayors of Los Angeles, San Diego and Anaheim. 

So what exactly did Newsom’s team see during its taxpayer-funded trip to Orlando theme parks that influenced these guidelines? The governor’s office has not talked about the team’s observations publicly, so Theme Park Tribune filed a public records request asking for any report or summary of findings related to the Florida trip. 

That request was denied. 

“Although we have identified records responsive to your request, those records are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act,” wrote Alisa Hartz, Newsom’s deputy legal affairs secretary in a Feb. 22 letter to Theme Park Tribune. “In particular, those records are exempt from disclosure because they are subject to privilege as records that reveal the deliberative processes of the Governor and his Administration.”

The governor’s office cited what is known as deliberative process privilege, which protects government documents from public records laws when they are related to an agency’s decision-making process and generated before a decision on a particular issue was made. 

By invoking that privilege, any report created by governor’s office employees judging COVID-19 safeguards at Orlando theme parks — and how those findings informed California’s own decision to keep its parks closed — will be shielded from public release. 

From a separate public records request, it would appear that Disney hasn’t heard much about the California team’s observations either. 

In an Oct. 20 email obtained by Theme Park Tribune, sent to Newsom’s health secretary, Mark Ghaly, Disneyland Resort senior vice president Mary Niven said of state officials’ visits to both Disney World and Disneyland:

“Unfortunately, other than some passing comments received during the Disneyland tour and a general briefing by a member of the Governor’s staff, we have yet to receive any formal feedback from state officials outlining opportunities to improve our protocols. We understand there may be potential concerns with guests congregating as they exited rides and attractions. We also understand that park visitors may gather in large numbers at outside restaurants. We take safety very seriously, as it is our number one priority across all of our operations and are always open to learn and adapt to enhance the safety of our cast and guests. So, it is essential that Disneyland receive specific formal feedback in order to make operational changes to address health and safety concerns.”

Niven asked to set up a call between Disneyland representatives — including Dr. Pam Hymel, chief medical officer for Disney’s theme parks — to discuss those findings and ways Disneyland can improve on Disney World’s safety measures. “We would very much welcome the state’s feedback on what it observed on the tours so we can work cooperatively to address any concerns,” Niven said. “While we want to open Disneyland at the earliest possible date, we are committed to open in the safest possible manner.” 

Ghlay did return Niven’s email a day later about organizing such a call. If Disney’s goal was to convince Gov. Newsom to change his administration’s reopening guidelines, no conversation has succeeded thus far. 

Complicating matters was the surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths that began in November. The debate over reopening Disneyland and other parks was silenced by greater concerns, as local hospitals were filled to capacity and funeral homes couldn’t handle all the bodies. 

Since late January, however, the campaign for a quicker reopening has revved up again. State legislators have introduced a bill to allow parks to operate at limited capacity in the “Orange” tier — a plan supported by local officials in both Orange County and Los Angeles County. 

The California Attractions and Parks Association declined to comment on the Newsom administration withholding information about its Disney World trip. Executive director Erin Guerrero repeated earlier statements arguing that parks have proven that they can operate safely during the pandemic. 

“CAPA encourages the Newsom Administration to acknowledge amusement parks’ extraordinary efforts to prepare to reopen responsibly, and urges the Governor to give parks a realistic timeline for reopening, as has been done in New York State,” Guerrero said in her statement to Theme Park Tribune. California theme parks have detailed plans in place so they can reopen responsibly with protocols that protect the health and safety of guests and staff.”

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