Friday, March 31, 2023

COVID, fires, and theme park reopenings: the Golden State in 2020

By Joe Kleiman, InPark News Editor

How bad is the economic impact of COVID on California’s tourism?

Two hours north of San Francisco is Mendocino County. With its wineries, pristine forests, and stunning shoreline (above), Mendocino relies on tourism as a major driver for the local economy. The county, which has an overall population of 86,700, employs 7,000 in tourism related businesses and sees an annual economic impact of close to $500 million.

In the introduction to its 2020/2021 Marketing Plan, Visit Mendocino County states “the COVID-19 pandemic closed Mendocino County for tourism business.”

According to Visit California, the public/private partnership that markets tourism in the state, tourism spending in California is expected to drop to $66.1 billion in 2020, less than half of the 2019 total, erasing a decade of growth. Travel-related spending in California is not expected to reach pre-coronavirus levels until 2024.

How did the wildfires complicate the situation?
Golden Gate Bridge

COVID and wildfires became a one-two punch for much of Northern California and the state’s Central Valley. On June 5, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) instituted a county monitoring list. Depending on the number of positive COVID cases, hospitalizations, or deaths, a county could be placed on or removed from the list. While listed, movie theaters and indoor dining could not operate, nor could indoor museums nor the indoor portions of family entertainment centers, zoos, and aquariums. Barbershops and salons within listed counties were ordered to close, with the Governor making a compromise that they could offer their services outdoors. By mid-July, 42 of the state’s 58 counties were on the list.

As people took advantage of outdoor dining at local restaurants or played a game of miniature golf, a high-pressure system drew moisture from the remnants of Tropical Storm Fausto off the coast of Mexico. When combined with temperatures in the 100s around much of the state and high winds, a condition known as a virga took place – where the rain evaporated before it hit the ground. This caused mass lightning strikes between August 15 and 18, torching the dry brush below and resulting in over a dozen wildfires.

San Francisco was surrounded by wildfires to the North and South, while fires raged between the South Bay city of San Jose and the coastal town of Santa Cruz and in the coastal range separating Silicon Valley from the resort town of Half Moon Bay. The smoke from these fires resulted in air quality alerts for much of the Central Valley and Bay Area.

The area around Lake Berryessa, an hour north of Vallejo, was also a hot zone. The Solano County Fairgrounds in Vallejo was used as a shelter for more than 250 animals from the fire, including horses, cattle, and poultry. Across the street, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom continued operating as a zoo, with the restriction that its shark exhibit, being indoors, could not open. Unlike other counties that were on the monitoring list due to large group gatherings, the CDPH website indicated that Solano County had been included due to a large outbreak of COVID among migrant farmworkers.

What is the difference between the Stages system and the Tiers?
Knott’s Berry Farm

When counties reached a certain stage, specific types of businesses could reopen. At the time of the monitoring list, theme park reopenings were included in Stage 3, then the final stage, of California’s reopening roadmap. Most counties had just reached Stage 2, which included the reopenings of family entertainment centers, museums, zoos, and cinemas – businesses that were expected to draw locally. The Stage 3 businesses, on the other hand, were high attendance events that were expected to draw from across multiple county lines, state lines, and even internationally – theme parks, conventions, spectator sports, and concerts.

On September 1, the reopening strategy was revised to become the “Blueprint for a Safer California.” This new, easier to understand strategy involves four color-coded tiers with restrictions placed on business openings within each tier. For example, under the new Blueprint, guidance for museums, zoos, and aquariums calls for outdoor operations only in Tier 1 (widespread), indoor activities at 25% capacity in Tier 2 (substantial), indoor activities at 50% capacity in Tier 3 (moderate), and indoor operations with some modifications in Tier 4 (minimal). As with the original roadmap, the state has slated theme park reopenings for Tier 4, where COVID transmission is minimal. To date, only three counties have reached this tier, none of which are home to theme parks.

What has Disney’s response been?

On September 29, The Walt Disney Company issued a statement from Josh D’Amaro, Chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products.  It read in part: “In light of the prolonged impact of COVID-19 on our business, including limited capacity due to physical distancing requirements and the continued uncertainty regarding the duration of the pandemic – exacerbated in California by the State’s unwillingness to lift restrictions that would allow Disneyland to reopen – we have made the very difficult decision to begin the process of reducing our workforce at our Parks, Experiences and Products segment at all levels, having kept non-working Cast Members on furlough since April, while paying healthcare benefits. Approximately 28,000 domestic employees will be affected, of which about 67% are part-time. We are talking with impacted employees as well as to the unions on next steps for union-represented Cast Members.” During the same week, Disney Chairman Bob Iger stepped down from California Governor Newsom’s Task Force on Business and Job Recovery.

The 28,000 employees were located on both coasts, including approximately 6,000 non-union and 8,000 union employees of the Walt Disney World Resort and around 400 employees of Walt Disney Imagineering.

Are any theme parks operating in California?
SeaWorld San Diego

Since our last update in July, four theme parks have been operating in the state, although not as theme parks. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom continues to operate under state reopening guidance for zoos. Knott’s Berry Farm has been hosting a number of successful food and retail festivals under outdoor dining and retail guidelines, LEGOLAND California briefly opened its Miniland displays to the public as an outdoor museum, and SeaWorld San Diego is operating as both zoo and outdoor dining festival.

Theme park guidance was expected to be issued October 2, but was postponed at the request of the California Association of Parks and Attractions (CAPA), an industry group representing thirty-two attraction and theme park operators and vendors conducting business in the state. According to Erin Guererro, CAPA Executive Director: “Today [October 1] California amusement park leaders who have been working for months to prepare to reopen responsibly saw an initial draft of state guidance and Blueprint placement for California’s amusement parks. While we are aligned on many of the protocols and health and safety requirements, there are many others that need to be modified if they are to lead to a responsible and reasonable amusement park reopening plan. We ask the Governor not to finalize guidance for amusement parks before engaging the industry in a more earnest manner, listening to park operators’ expertise, and collaborating with the industry on a plan that will allow for amusement parks to reopen responsibly while still keeping the health and safety of park employees and guests a top priority.”

Why would the state want to limit how far guests live from the parks?
LEGOLAND California Resort

One point of contention is a 120-mile residence limit for guests entering the parks. State reopening guidance is being overseen by CDPH which oversees public health for the entire state, in conjunction with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), the agency that oversees matters of employee health and safety. It appears the distance requirement is intended to isolate an outbreak if it begins in an effort to prevent a widespread transmission event. In 2015, CDPH and the US Centers for Disease Control traced 147 measles cases, of a strain declared eradicated in the US, to a single individual visiting the Disneyland Resort. The 147 cases were stretched across eight states, Mexico and Canada.

On its website, the City of Anaheim lists both the Disney parks and the Anaheim Convention Center as Tier Two openings, “pending guidance.”

Ali Bay, the Deputy Director of Communications for CDPH told InPark: “Amusement parks have not been approved for opening at this time. When we have additional updates, we’ll let you know.”

What is the Governor’s stance?

There is currently a standoff between the park operators and their home cities on one side and the Governor and CDPH on the other. At an October 7 press conference, California Governor Gavin Newsom shared: “There’s disagreements over opening a major theme park. We’re going to let science and data make that determination. I understand the frustration that many business leaders have, that they want to move forward sectorially to reopen. But we’re going to be led by a health-first framework and we’re going to be stubborn about it. That’s our commitment. That’s our resolve. While we feel there’s no hurry putting out guidelines, we’re continuing to work with the industry – amusement parks. It’s very complex. These are like small cities. But we don’t anticipate in the immediate term any of these larger theme parks opening until we see more stability in terms of the data.”

Based on its timeline, it appears the state is waiting for a vaccine to be in wide distribution before issuing guidance. Regardless, California’s theme park operators have shown they can successfully operate parks in other states and nations with strict health and safety measures in place. It is our hope that California and its parks will have a good outcome with their negotiations and the state’s theme parks will reopen soon.

IMAGES courtesy Visit California. Governor Newsom image courtesy Office of the Governor of California.

Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleiman
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, InPark's Senior Correspondent Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe previously served as News Editor and has remained a contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, The Planetarian, Behind the Thrills, and MiceChat His blog, takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.

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