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A whole heck of a lot is going on in Florida this week, and sadly, it's not attraction-related. Widespread changes have arrived in the face of rising COVID-19 caseloads, both in terms of theme park employees and guests, and we've got everything you need to know:
WHAT'S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW IN FLORIDA?
It's Olympics season and with each passing day, it's looking more and more like Florida is out here trying to claim some accolades of their own by way of record-shattering COVID-19 positive caseloads and hospitalizations. If you thought last week was intense, well, brace yourself for this one, as there's no way around it right now: Florida is crumbling under its local caseload, which has skyrocketed even further beyond jaw-dropping figures from recent weeks.
We'll start where we left off in last Tuesday's column: rising COVID-19 cases, a full ICU, and safety precautions long gone in most ways throughout the parks. That same day, the CDC announced that vaccinated people should "resume wearing masks in public indoor spaces in parts of the country where the virus is surging", which by default, includes Florida.
On Wednesday, in response to soaring COVID-19 caseloads, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings — where Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort are located — announced a state of emergency for the region, at long last resulting in Walt Disney World adjusting their indoor mask policy for all theme park guests and employees, regardless of vaccination status.
On Thursday, AdventHealth, the local hospital network — which recently fostered a public partnership with Walt Disney World Resort — announced it has hit "black" level due to an overload of COVID-19 related hospitalizations, the most since January 2021. Meanwhile, Florida ICUs are being filled with "younger and sicker" patients, as a New York Times story illustrates the nightmare déjà vu occurring in one Miami hospital, which be warned, is beyond bleak. That same piece cites that Florida reported "the highest daily average hospitalizations in the nation [which amounts to] 36 for every 100,000 people over the past two weeks." (It's worth noting that every single person in their COVID ICU, which recently opened a secondary unit with 50 additional beds, is unvaccinated.)
By Saturday, new data showed that not only is Florida responsible for approximately one-fifth of new COVID-19 cases in America, but reported 21,683 new COVID-19 cases, the highest single-day increase within one state since the pandemic began. (This, of course, shattered Florida's previous all-time high from July 12, 2020, when the state clocked over 15,000 new cases in one day.) On Sunday, Florida crushed yet another record with 10,207 COVID-related hospitalizations, with the state now leading the nation in, well, everything.
The news of Florida struggling with COVID-19 and its Delta variant comes on the heels of what was supposed to be a return to normalcy this summer, as most Orlando-bound visitors made their plans with a much different 2021 in mind.
Wondering how this may affect your theme park trip? Read on for answers:
ARE MASKS GOING TO BE REQUIRED ON MY NEXT VISIT?
Yes, at Walt Disney World. In response to recent news, the Florida theme park resort announced it would be reinstating its indoor mask policy. This requirement was originally lifted on June 15 for unvaccinated visitors, but with no enforcement or proof required, resulted in guests of all ages opting out of face coverings while indoors until the rule went into effect this past Friday.
Now, all employees and guests throughout Walt Disney World — both vaccinated and unvaccinated — are required to wear face coverings while indoors, unless stationary while eating or drinking. (There is no announced end date.)
Heading to Universal Orlando Resort? Prepare for your trip to look, well, strangely normal. Universal Orlando Resort employees are once again required to wear masks while working indoors, but the theme park resort's visitor guidelines, updated last week, are now more ambiguous than before. New verbiage states that guests themselves are "encouraged" to both wear masks indoors — regardless of vaccination status — and "keep a safe distance from travel parties", putting the onus on families visiting the resort to keep themselves safe, as though they can avoid COVID-19 of their own volition. (Juxtapose it with attractions' regular request to "fill in all available space" and, welp, you've got a brain-teaser for how anyone could possibly take it upon themselves to distance from others within a compact theme park queue.)
Universal had previously aligned with CDC guidelines and only required masks indoors for unvaccinated guests, including on transportation, which as previously discussed meant the vast majority of guests of all ages went mask-free.
(On the West Coast, Disneyland also updated their mask guidance to mirror Walt Disney World's, and masks will once again be required indoors. Universal Studios Hollywood requires masks indoors as per a Los Angeles County mask mandate.)
WHAT SHOULD I EXPECT FOR MY TRIP TO WALT DISNEY WORLD OR UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORT LATER THIS YEAR?
It's too early to tell if previous safety precautions, like social distancing, will be reinstated at theme parks. Future updates regarding safety protocol at Disney World and Universal Orlando are likely to come from the parks themselves, and changes often occur no more than 48 hours prior to going into effect, so be sure to check their respective websites prior to your trip.
It's unlikely that future changes — particularly when it comes to face coverings — will come from Florida state or local government. Back in May, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis enacted an executive order that banned local governments like Orange County's from establishing a mask mandate, which is why Mayor Jerry Demings establishing a state of emergency — also restricted in that order — was so significant.
What comes next?
If you're traveling in the immediate future, note that numbers are not likely to drop off any time soon. According to the Orlando Sentinel, wastewater in the Central Florida region — where these theme parks are located — indicates that COVID-19 has been increasing since early July and "suggests the outbreak could grow worse in the days ahead."
The Walt Disney Company also announced on Friday that all its salaried and non-union hourly employees in the U.S. are required to be vaccinated within the next 60 days. The company intends for unionized employees — including those who work at the theme parks — to be vaccinated as well, and "conversations around this topic with the unions representing our employees" have already begun, according to an internal memo.
There's no crystal ball, particularly when it comes to Florida's COVID-19 rates, but we will be sure to keep you posted each and every week, here on SYFY WIRE.
Links! Links! Links!
- Blue Shrimp is now Star Wars canon.
- Nighttime entertainment — and fireworks — are back at Disney's Hollywood Studios.
- A handful of Disney World restaurants are reopening.
- More details about Disney Wish were revealed this week.
Universal Studios theme parks and SYFY WIRE are both owned by NBCUniversal.