Walt Disney World Resort, which officially reopened on Saturday, claims to be “the most magical place on Earth.” But in the midst of a global pandemic in which Florida has emerged as the epicenter, infectious disease experts and physicians are concerned it’s primed to become the opposite — a hotbed of coronavirus spread that has the potential to cause a ripple effect throughout the nation.
On Monday, two days after the reopening in Orlando, Disneyland Hong Kong announced that it would be closing its doors once again, citing a need to align “with prevention efforts” driven by the government. But despite this move, and a record-breaking number of single-day cases in Florida over the weekend, Disney World seems undeterred in its efforts to continue making magic.
The move has elicited mixed reviews, with some calling on local leaders to stop the reopening and others praising Disney for taking increased precautions. In a document shared with Yahoo Life, Disney outlined its extensive COVID-19 safety protocols, which include limited capacity, physical distancing, temperature checks, face masks, hand-washing and hand-sanitizing (at more than 4,000 newly installed stations), plexiglass partitions and increased cleaning and disinfecting at the park.
While the tactics are commendable, Yahoo Life medical contributor Dr. Dara Kass says they’re not enough to justify reopening. “Disney is doing everything it can to keep people safe in so far as mandating mask-wearing, hands-sanitizing, mobile-ordering and partitions. These are all smart solutions for local businesses,” says Kass. “But this is not a local business and so they're providing an attractive nuisance for people to come to a highly infective state.”
“Attractive nuisance,” is technically a legal term used to describe objects or properties that can be alluring to kids but ultimately put them in danger, such as pools or trampolines. The phrase was used by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in April while referring to certain activities and places — such as festivals, theme parks and concerts — that would prove too dangerous to reopen in the near future.
Video: Disney World reopens amid Florida’s virus surge
Kass believes the term applies here as well. “If they were a private, local business operating in their community, we would say, ‘This is a good example of what you need to do,’” she says. “But people don't come to Disney World from the neighborhood.”
Indeed, Disney World is the most visited theme park on the globe, attracting an average of 20 million visitors per year. While Disney itself does not release data on where these visitors hail from, a 2018 analysis from technology company Streetlight Data estimated that more than 70 percent of those visiting Disney World each year live 100 miles or more away and that just 0.5 percent live within a mile of it.
That means not only are the park goers potentially at risk, but the people in their states may be too.
“So now we're asking people to go to Florida — which is the world epicenter of coronavirus right now — spend three days falsely reassured by the environment of the Disney world,” says Kass. “Meanwhile, when they're not in the park, they're stopping at restaurants, they're staying at hotels and now they're going to go back to where they came from and it's going to spread like a cancer.”
In interviews with the New York Times some park-goers on opening day noted they traveled from Birmingham, Ala., and Laurinburg, N.C., after having purchased a coveted block of tickets online (the park no longer allows visitors to buy passes at the door). Other news stories have mentioned visitors from Indiana and Rhode Island, the latter of which has extremely few cases of COVID-19.
The move is equally concerning to Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infection prevention epidemiologist at George Mason University. “There’s always a concern when people visit a place with high community transmission that they’ll be exposed and potentially take the infection back with them to their home state or county,” Popescu tells Yahoo Life. “Since Florida is seeing such unprecedented numbers, the concern is that this could bubble up and cause clusters in other states as a result of exposure and/or transmission.”
Popescu points out this has happened in 2015 when more than 100 cases of measles were traced to a suspected case of measles at Disneyland in California (which has postponed its reopening). But what concerns her most is the inevitability of people collecting inside, where there is less ventilation. “I worry most about indoor areas where people are congregated for long periods of time, especially unmasked (restaurants), but also those indoor areas where people are waiting in line for a prolonged period of time in tight quarters,” she says. “Ventilation and masking will be critical.”
Although Popescu agrees that the precautions Disney has taken are “great intervention strategies,” she still has questions about how they’re handling things like eating and drinking, or contact tracing in the event that someone tests positive. Given this, she doesn’t feel confident enough to endorse the park opening. “With the current COVID-19 situation in Florida, I think theme parks pose a very high risk for transmission — from crowds, to enclosed spaces, and the likelihood that people will not always follow masking protocols,” says Popescu.
Kass agrees that the move was premature. “I think from a national health perspective and a national public health response perspective, opening Disney World is an irresponsible thing to do,” says Kass. “Disney World is in Florida, but it's not a Floridian thing. We need to be responsible — and the owners of Disney World need to be responsible for this country, not just Florida.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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