Workers praise Disney virus safety, but will visitors come?

Workers praise Disney virus safety, but will visitors come?

Not everyone is smiling two weeks after Florida theme park reopened its gates

  • Jul. 26, 2020 6:30 a.m.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Every week, it seems, Kaila Barker, her husband and their five children change their minds about whether to travel from their home in Connecticut to Florida’s Walt Disney World as planned in September.

On the one hand, the lack of crowds means more opportunities to go on rides without long waits. On the other hand, Connecticut and Florida have implemented pandemic-related quarantines for each other’s residents and visitors, and the Barkers worry whether the Disney “magic” will get lost with mandatory mask-wearing for visitors and workers, temperature checks and no parades, fireworks shows or up-close “meet-and-greets” with costumed characters.

“We keep going back and forth. It’s such a hard decision to make,” Barker said last Tuesday.

Two weeks after Disney World started opening its theme parks for the first time since closing in March because of COVID-19, the Barkers’ quandary affects not only Disney World’s future but that of central Florida’s tourism-reliant economy.

More than 75 million visitors came to Orlando in 2018, mostly due to its reputation as a theme park mecca, which also includes Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando. But the coronavirus has upended Orlando’s status as the most visited place in the U.S.

In the week that Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom started welcoming back visitors, occupancy of hotel rooms in the Orlando area was down more than 60% from the previous year, a much deeper drop than the state as a whole, which declined more than 41%, according to STR, which tracks hotel data.

Less than half of Disney World’s 43,000 unionized workers have been recalled to their old jobs, contributing to two Orlando-area counties having the state’s highest unemployment rates last month — Osceola at 22.9% and Orange at 17.2%. Disney World has an overall workforce of 77,000 employees, the nation’s largest single-site labour force.

Many of those still-furloughed workers are about to lose federal benefits at the end of the month.

“This is an extremely difficult moment,” said Paul Cox, president of the local union that represents stagehands and show technicians at Disney World. “There are still a majority of workers who are staying at home and they’re about to lose support. Things are going to get bad.”

Union officials estimate the Disney parks are no more than a third full, but that may be more by design to maintain social distancing. Disney World doesn’t release attendance figures, but in pre-pandemic times its four parks and two water parks could host around 150,000 visitors a day.

Florida has had a surging coronavirus caseload recently, and other Disney parks around the globe have run into coronavirus-related roadblocks. Hong Kong Disneyland Park was forced to close earlier this month following the city’s decision to ban public gatherings of more than four people, and Disney’s California parks delayed reopening while they awaited state guidelines.

Cowen Inc. estimated recently that Disney’s parks and resorts won’t return to pre-pandemic profitability until fiscal year 2025, and there is a “meaningful” probability that Disney World could close again because of the pandemic.

Leaders of the Disney World workers’ unions describe the virus-related safety measures Disney has taken as “exemplary.”

After workers complained about patrons walking around with their masks pulled down while eating food like turkey legs, Disney World updated its mandatory mask policy, requiring visitors to eat in one place while maintaining social distancing.

In response to other worker concerns, Disney has distributed personal hand sanitizer containers for workers to wear on their belts, added additional break rooms to limit the number of workers in them and reduced the number of riders on buses that shuttle workers from parking lots to the parks. Performers dressed as Disney princesses being driven in a horse-powered carriage through the parks now sit individually in rows separated by clear-plastic window partitions.

“Singing their praises seems so strange,” said Julee Jerkovich, an official with a United Food & Commercial Workers union, which represents Disney merchandise and banquet workers. “As far as this grand experiment, I would have to say Disney has done a really good job.”

But not all unions are happy. The union that represents actors and singers has filed a grievance with Disney World, saying their 750 members were locked out of returning to work after they complained about Disney ignoring their demands for getting coronavirus tests since they can’t wear masks while performing. Some performers, though, are eager to return to work and are pushing the union to reach an agreement with the company, as they worry about Disney replacing their shows with temporary ones featuring non-actors.

There have been isolated cases of workers and visitors connected to the theme parks getting sick with COVID-19, “but we haven’t seen any large number of positive cases that come from any of the parks,” Dr. Raul Pino, health officer for Florida’s Department of Health, said last Monday.

Disney’s policy of granting sick workers with paid time off so they can quarantine has made a difference, said Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here! Local 362, which represents Disney World park greeters, attractions workers and custodians.

But Clinton wonders if the current operating model can last until the pandemic is over, given that just over 20,000 of the 43,000 workers represented by unions have returned to work, only half of Disney World’s 30 onsite hotels currently are back open and several in-park restaurants still are closed.

“Disney is a strong brand. They have a great product, but does the novelty wear off? Do people want to go to a theme park now? Is it more appealing with less crowds?” Clinton said. “I’m hopeful but nervous.”

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta reported an additional 399 cases of COVID-19 Thursday, on 9,217 tests, for a test positivity rate of 4.3 per cent. (Image courtesy CDC)
Red Deer down to 562 active COVID-19 cases

8 new COVID-19 deaths, 399 additional COVID-19 cases

Alberta premier Jason Kenney, right and Doug Schweitzer, Minister of Justice and Solicitor General, provide details about Bill 13, the Alberta Senate Election Act., in Edmonton Alta, on Wednesday June 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Minister Doug Schweitzer talks on Enhanced COVID-19 Business Benefit

Provincial government rolling out new benefit this April to better help small businesses.

Mike Ammeter (Photo by Rebecca Hadfield)
Sylvan Lake man elected chair of Canadian Canola Growers Association

Mike Ammeter is a local farmer located near the Town of Sylvan Lake

City of Red Deer has nearly doubled its active COVID-19 case count since Feb. 10 and has 75.6 per cent of the Central zone’s active cases. (File photo)
Another new high: Red Deer hits 574 active COVID-19 cases

Province reports 13 new COVID-19 deaths, 430 new cases

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported 11 additional deaths over the past 24 hours. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta
Red Deer active COVID-19 cases drop slightly

Province reports 267 additional COVID-19 cases, 11 new deaths

Bookings for COVID-19 vaccines for people age 75 or older start Wednesday. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Updated: Delays for seniors booking for vaccine appointments

By 9:20 a.m. Wednesday, 4,500 seniors had booked their appointments

Sylvan Lake's Winter Village lured many visitors to the town this winter. The town has launched a new contest to attract a new business.
(Black Press file photo)
Sylvan Lake offering rent-free storefront space to lure new businesses

Winning business proposal will get a storefront space rent-free for a year

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
NDP will not trigger election as long as pandemic continues: Singh

‘“We will vote to keep the government going’

Students and staff at Gateway Christian School wore pink Wednesday in support of Pink Shirt Day, a worldwide anti-bullying initiative that was started in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer Public Schools)
Students, central Alberta community celebrate Pink Shirt Day

Mayor of Sylvan Lake Sean McIntyre supports anti-bullying cause

Minister Rick Wilson poses with Katie at the Boys and Girls Club of Wetaskiwin, both wearing her Pink Shirt Day design. Facebook/ Boys and Girls Club of Wetaskiwin.
Wetaskiwin Boys and Girls club Pink Shirt day design focuses on kindness

Katie with the Boys and Girls Club of Wetaskiwin created this year’s Pink Shirt Day design.

Black Press File Photo
Valentine’s Day shooting in Maskwacis leaves one male in hospital, one male in custody

19-year-old Francis Edward Nepoose from Maskwacis has been charged with attempted murder.

Red Deer Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Anne Kirker is expected to sentence Satnam Singh Sandhu on Friday. Red Deer Advocate file photo
Updated: Sylvan Lake man pleads guilty to manslaughter for strangling wife in 2019

Kulvinder Sandhu was strangled and died in hospital several days later

Sentencing delayed in the stabbing death of Samantha Sharpe, of Sunchild First Nation. (Red Deer Advocate file photo)
Central Alberta man not criminally responsible for killing his father in 2020: judge

Psychiatrist testified Nicholas Johnson was psychotic when he killed his father

Most Read