On May 27, 2020, Orange County, Florida reported 28 new cases of COVID-19. That same day, Walt Disney World announced that its theme parks would reopen on July 11. Central Florida counties combined had reported 5,542 cases total — far less than the harder-hit South Florida region — and 205 deaths.
With guests returning to the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom in just a few days, the local nature of the pandemic has drastically changed.
Orange County reported 770 new confirmed cases just on Sunday with a test positivity rate of 14.2 percent — indicated increased spread of this new strain of coronavirus, not just increased testing. Osceola County, which covers part of Disney World property, reported 188 new cases on Sunday with a 16.4 percent positivity rate. Florida as a whole has become the new COVID-19 hotspot, reporting more than 21,000 new cases on Saturday and Sunday.
Despite these indications of worsening local spread, there’s no sign that Disney World will delay its planned reopening. While Disney has not publicly addressed the concerns about the increased COVID-19 spread in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis said on Monday that he’s not worried about theme parks contributing to the outbreak.
“Disney, I have no doubt it’s going to be a safe environment,” DeSantis said during a press conference. “The folks who put a premium on safety, that’s showing you that, you know, we’re able to handle this, have society function still when people go into work, but do it in a way that you take some basic precautions and so we’re really impressed with what Universal has done, and I’ve looked at Disney’s plan … it’s very very thorough.”
Disney itself has indicated that it is proceeding with reopening by announcing reopening dates for transportation options around the resort. The Disney World monorail system, as well as ferry boats to and from the Magic Kingdom, went back into service Saturday. The Disney Skyliner gondolas will be operating again on July 15, the same day Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios reopen.
On Friday, Disney posted a video about its reopening preparations, showing employees pleased to be returning to work and complimenting the company’s safety measures.
“My son is the most important thing to me so I’m comfortable and confident because I do see the work that we’re putting in to make everybody feel safe,” one unnamed cast member said.
What the video does not show are Disney employees’ concerns about reopening amid an active pandemic. The Actors’ Equity Association rejected Disney’s reopening plan because it does not include testing for live performers in the park — the same concern cited by Disneyland workers.
“Disney knows that testing makes for a safer work place,” Actors’ Equity Association wrote in an email to members last week that was obtained by Deadline. “Why else would Disney agree to testing for film productions? If testing helps keep a film set safe, that is also true for performers in the parks. Despite that, we have not reached an agreement with Disney for testing.”
To be clear, Disney’s reopening plan os quite similar to that of rivals Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando. Those parks have been reopened for nearly a month, with no evidence that theme park visits have contributed to the local COVID-19 spike.
But Disney World draws many more visitors than its local competitors, with a higher share of out-of-town visitors — some of whom may come from states that mandated 14-day quarantines for anyone returning from Florida.
Key questions about Disney World’s impact on the local COVID-19 outbreak will remain unanswered until a few weeks after the parks actually reopen. How many guests will return? How strictly will Disney enforce its new rules, including the requirement to wear face masks? And how quickly will Disney or contact tracing efforts take action when an employee or guest does get infected?
Editor’s Note: This article was a day after original publication with a new quote from Gov. DeSantis.