As theme and amusement parks in Central Florida began planning their reopenings, each proposed a similar set of safeguards aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.
The likes of Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Walt Disney World said they would limit attendance, encourage physical distancing and require guests above the age of 2 and all employees to wear face masks.
Two parks, however, eschewed a face mask requirement. One was Legoland Florida, which strongly encourages mask wearing of guests, though it is a requirement for employees.
The other was the Orlando location for Fun Spot America. When it reopened on May 22 — more than a week ahead of Universal Orlando — it did not require guests to wear masks. Employee requirements were limited to workers at food and beverage locations and those who handled cash.
Just days ahead of that reopening, Fun Spot owner and chairman John Arie Sr. shared a video filled with misinformation and conspiracy theories about face masks on his Facebook page.
The video shared by Arie came from the YouTube channel of Del Bigtree, a prominent anti-vaccine activist. In the video, Bigtree maligns the use of face masks, saying “I’m not going to raise my kids to be afraid to breathe the fricking air,” and then quotes from an article published by a retired neurosurgeon that falsely claims face masks can actually harm you.
“By wearing a mask, the exhaled viruses will not be able to escape and will concentrate in the nasal passages, enter the olfactory nerves and travel into the brain,” Bigtree said, quoting from the article. Health fact-checking website Health Feedback called this claim “unsupported and illogical,” because if someone is exhaling the COVID-19 virus, they’ve already been infected, and exhaling the virus doesn’t change the nature of their infection.
The article and the video shared by Arie also falsely claimed that wearing a face mask would result in oxygen deprivation and carbon dioxide toxicity. These claims are easily disproven by the experience of health care workers.
“Keep in mind that many people —for example surgeons or certain kinds of scientists—have routinely worn masks for long periods of time without clear adverse effects,” Sarah Stanley, associate professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Associated Press.
This was not the only pandemic-related Facebook post made by Arie in recent months. Theme Park Tribune found that Arie posted more videos from Bigtree speaking against face masks and stay-at-home orders, as well as anti-lockdown memes.
In a May 8 post that was not attached to any video or meme, Arie said:
“We don’t need to wear masks on airplanes, grocery stores, Costco, amusement parks or church! We have been around millions of ‘germs’ since the beginning of time. Our bodies are designed to heal and protect us from germs, bacteria and viruses! It’s the way God designed and made us from the beginning of time! It ain’t broken! We ain’t broken!!!
We don’t need hand sanitizer to live. We don’t need to stay 6 feet away from others, give ‘air hugs’ or elbow touches. We don’t need to hide in our homes or walk ‘one way’ in stores. It’s safe to get a haircut, your nails done or your teeth cleaned! It’s safe to eat out, go to a park or beach. It’s safe to go to church!!!
It’s time to UNquarantine!!! Freedom didn’t need any fixing. We didn’t need new rules and laws, we have common sense and a fantastically designed body and immune system. We don’t need government telling us what is ‘essential.’ Have FAITH, don’t be afraid to LIVE!!!”
You can see a screenshot of that full post here.
Theme Park Tribune sent numerous emails to Arie and other Fun Spot America executives, including his son, CEO John Arie Jr., seeking comment on Arie Sr.’s Facebook posts. Those emails asked if Arie Sr.’s personal views on face masks and the pandemic influenced Fun Spot’s safety measures upon reopening. None of those emails, sent over the course of several weeks, received a response.
However Arie Sr.’s personal views on face masks — predicated on bad science and misinformation — may have influenced Fun Spot operations, its parks have followed mask mandates from local governments.
When Fun Spot Kissimmee reopened in May, Osceola County already had a face mask order in place. Orange County followed suit in June in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases. At that point, Fun Spot Orlando said they would require guests to wear masks in compliance with the Orange County order.
Despite health authorities initially not recommending face mask use in order to conserve supplies for health care workers, both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization now say they can limit the spread of COVID-19.
Florida does not have a statewide mandate requiring face masks to be worn in public. A June study published in the journal Health Affairs found that states which mandated face mask use saw their COVID-19 growth rates decline, possibly averting up to 450,000 COVID-19 cases. Another June study, published by medical journal The Lancet, found that wearing face masks “could result in a large reduction in risk of infection.”