California Theme Park Closures Threaten Disneyland and Its Employees

wtbu · California Theme Park Closures Threaten Disneyland and Its Employees
By Hannah Yoshinaga

Although Disneyland has a reputation for being the happiest place on earth, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it anything but for its 32,000 cast members. Amid widespread layoffs and continued theme park closures mandated by the state of California, cast members are generating union support for reopening and a bill to protect hospitality workers.

Unions are pushing the state to sign bill AB 3216, which would protect workers in industries that were heavily impacted by COVID-19 from losing their jobs or being discriminated against for pandemic-related reasons. The bill would guarantee Disney employees, many of whom work in hospitality, their jobs when theme parks are allowed to reopen. 

Ada Briceño, co-president of UNITE HERE Local 11, a union that represents Disneyland cast members, said that in a statement that, “Our members have given decades of their lives to companies like Disney. Now through no fault of their own, they are being laid off. We urge Governor Gavin Newson to sign AB 3216, a lifeline for hospitality workers.” 

Ines Guzman, a furloughed housekeeper at the Disneyland Hotel, said in a statement that, “I love my job, which is why as a mom of five kids I am asking Governor Gavin Newsom sign AB 3216 to ensure that hundreds of thousands of workers like myself have the opportunity to return to their job once the pandemic is over.

Many of Disney’s employees have been either laid off or furloughed since April. The Walt Disney Company laid off 28,000 cast members between its California and Florida theme parks on September 28, about 67% of which were part-time workers.  

As a result of the layoffs, unions representing Disney cast members are demanding that California governance allow theme parks to reopen. However, guidance released on October 20 by California Governor Gavin Newsom implements strict requirements for large theme parks that will likely keep them closed indefinitely.

Newsom said that, “I hope one recognizes our stubbornness on a health-first, data-driven decision making process is done with our eyes wide open on what’s happening now around the world,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday. We have to maintain that vigilance so we can avoid any further increase in transmission.”

In response, Disneyland Resort President Ken Potrock said in a statement that, in spite of Disney’s efforts to create safe reopening protocols, “The State of California continues to ignore this fact, instead mandating arbitrary guidelines that it knows are unworkable and that hold us to a standard vastly different from other reopened businesses and state-operated facilities.”

The guidelines, which were delayed for several weeks by state health leaders, state that theme parks holding more than 15,000 guests must remain closed until the counties they are located in reach Tier 4 status, which represents the lowest risk of coronavirus spread. When parks are allowed to reopen, they will be limited to 25% capacity. 

Disneyland’s Anaheim campus is located in Orange County, which currently sits in Tier 2, despite decreases in the number of COVID-19 cases across the county over the last several months. 

Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, stated that, “Personally, I think that we can look forward to a yellow tier by next summer, hopefully. Hopefully.” 

Dylan Woods, a Boston University junior, said that while the state’s plans will keep Disneyland closed for some time, the decision is ultimately in the best interest of public health. 

“I think it makes sense for amusement parks to not open because you’d think that’d be one of the leading places that the virus could spread, but then I guess it all depends on if sports stadiums are gonna be open, if outdoor parks are gonna be open, then how far are you willing to go? Because there are drawbacks, people’s jobs rely on it, people love going to places like Disneyland, it is a tough balance.”

“I think I would just defer to the scientists, and if they think it’s a real threat to keep it open, then things are gonna be bad for a lot of people, but you’d rather have people alive and not have a job than risk their lives and the lives of other people and their health, too. It’s a lot of things to balance, but at the end of the day, someone has to get the short end of the stick and I guess you’d rather be too cautious than not be cautious enough.” 

The new guidance could also keep other parks in California closed until next summer, particularly those located in Los Angeles County. The county has the most COVID-19 cases in the state and is currently sitting in Tier 1, with little hope to move to Tier 4 anytime soon. 

Erin Guerrero, executive director of the California Attractions and Parks Association, said in a statement that, “To say today’s announcement on theme parks is disappointing would be a grave understatement. The Governor has not used science or data to inform his decision. Theme parks have opened and operated safely around the world for months. Data and science prove that theme parks can operate responsibly anywhere – there is no rational reason to believe they can’t do so in California. No one cares more about park employee and guest safety than the parks themselves.” 

While UNITE HERE Local 11 has reached deals with Disney to provide laid-off workers with two months of severance pay and give two weeks’ pay to workers exposed to coronavirus, the union may be unable to prevent more workers from being furloughed or laid off if park closures continue past the beginning of next year. 

Potrock said that, “Together with our labor unions we want to get people back to work,” continued Potrock, “but these State guidelines will keep us shuttered for the foreseeable future, forcing thousands more people out of work, leading to the inevitable closure of small family-owned businesses, and irreparably devastating the Anaheim/Southern California community.”

The new guidelines will make the potential passing of AB 3216 even more important for Disney employees facing the possibility of unemployment well into 2021. 

Disneyland senior cast members who were not furloughed over the summer spent several months developing guidelines that would allow guests to return to the park safely, including developing queues that would allow them to socially distance while waiting in line to ride attractions. However, leadership had a difficult time getting Newsom and other state health leaders to respond to their plans, let alone release state guidelines for theme parks. 

As Disneyland’s main theme park and Disney California Adventure park remain shuttered, Disney’s sole source of in-person revenue continues to be its Downtown Disney shopping and dining district. Downtown Disney successfully reopened in July, and several theme park managers who have been retained have been temporarily reassigned to managing operations at Downtown Disney. Many other employees remain on furlough because there are not enough work opportunities at Downtown Disney to justify recalling them. 

While the battle between local governance, unions and state leaders over theme parks will probably continue over the next several months, California continues to be relatively successful containing the spread of coronavirus. The state is currently registering a 2.6% positivity rate over the last 14 days, with only eight new cases per day for every 100,000 people.