Video showing lack of social distancing at Universal Orlando sparks concern about theme parks reopening

Eufemia Didonato

Visitors ride a roller coaster at Universal Studios theme park on the first day of reopening from the coronavirus pandemic, on June 5, 2020, in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Gregg Newton / AFP) (Photo by GREGG NEWTON/AFP via Getty Images)
Visitors ride a roller coaster at Universal Studios theme park on the first day of reopening from the coronavirus pandemic, on June 5, 2020, in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Gregg Newton / AFP) (Photo by GREGG NEWTON/AFP via Getty Images)

Universal Orlando reopened in early June and the theme park has already come under fire after suggestions that employees on one ride were not enforcing social distancing.

An account that shares news related to the theme park, called @UniNewsToday, wrote on Twitter over the weekend that “all of the social distancing markers near the load area at Hagrid’s [Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure] are gone. There’s also a Team Member yelling ‘fill in all the available space.’”

The account also shared a video of the staffer encouraging people to crowd together.

People quickly jumped in with their own comments. “Are we not gonna talk about the fact that there’s a blurry spot shaped into a perfect rectangle right where the sticker should be,” one wrote. “Either some re-training is needed here (not to mention upkeep of social distancing markers, which I get could wear out), or you are actively and intentionally contributing to a further spread of the virus,” another said.

But others came to the theme park’s defense. “This was definitely a one-off. I was there today and the person we had was not like this and social distancing was strictly enforced throughout the park,” one person wrote. “I’ve been on this two days in a row and haven’t seen anything like this,” someone else wrote.

Universal Orlando Resort’s official Twitter account responded to the original tweet, writing: “Due to our efficient loading process at moving belt loading attractions like Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure guests are constantly moving through our queue prior to loading.”

Tom Schroder, vice president of corporate communications at Universal Parks & Resorts, tells Yahoo Life that the company has “taken a thoughtful and careful approach to our phased reopening, making the health and safety of our guests and team members our top priority, following CDC guidelines and working closely with health officials.” He adds, “we will continue to do so.”

Universal Orlando isn’t the only theme park currently open. Disney announced a phased plan last week to gradually reopen its theme park properties in California and Florida in July, and some select Six Flags parks are open as well.

While new cases of COVID-19 are slightly decreasing in California, per data from COVID-19 case tracker COVID Exit Strategy, new positive cases are increasing in Florida. It’s also worth noting that California’s Orange County, where Disneyland is located, saw 304 cases of COVID-19 reported on Sunday, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency. COVID-19 cases are also increasing in other areas of the country where people travel from to visit these parks. With that, it’s understandable that you might have concerns about the safety of visiting theme parks right now. Here’s what you need to know.

What is being done in theme parks to keep people safe?

It depends on the park. While every theme park is subject to local regulations, each has its own methods of trying to keep patrons safe.

Universal Orlando, for example, has these safety measures listed on its website: “Masks are required, temperature checks are required when people enter the park (those with a temperature of 100.4 or above will not be allowed to enter), social distancing is encouraged, and floor markers are used in select areas to help people space out, the use of hand sanitizer is required before boarding select rides and frequent hand washing is encouraged.”

Six Flags Magic Mountain, which is located near Los Angeles, is taking these precautions: “Masks are required, non-invasive temperature checks will be conducted for guests and team members, guests are asked to be healthy for 14 days before entering the park, there is controlled capacity to try to limit crowds, a six-foot separation between parties is encouraged in all lines, the park has increased separation on rides and in dining rooms, there is reduced capacity in all indoor facilities.”

Disney plans to take the following safety precautions at both Disneyland and Disney World: “Limited capacity at parks, hotels, restaurants, and other locations, certain attractions, experiences, services, and amenities will be modified, have limited availability or stay closed, character meet-and-greets are temporarily unavailable, limitations on parking and operating hours, new ticket sales and Annual Passport sales and renewals are temporarily paused, parades and nighttime spectaculars are temporarily suspended, guests will need to make a reservation for park entry in advance.”

When asked for additional comment, a Disney spokesperson referred Yahoo Life to the company’s recommendations listed online. At the time of publishing, a representative for Six Flags had not responded to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.

How can you stay as safe as possible when you visit a theme park?

It’s important to understand that visiting any kind of area where multiple people gather is a risk right now, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “That includes theme parks,” he says.

But most of the time, theme parks are trying to keep you safe, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “Amusement parks have put into place many different measures, but it’s not going to be zero risk to do any type of interaction,” Adalja says.

If you decide to visit an amusement park, it’s important to do your best to stay six feet away from others as much as possible, Schaffner says. However, Adalja stresses that it’s hard to do that 100 percent of the time. “There are going to be situations where you can’t social distance,” he says. “If you’re very risk-averse, you have to keep that in mind.”

Wearing a mask can also help, Schaffner says, along with practicing careful hand hygiene. Still, Adalja stresses that visiting a theme park right now isn’t a risk-free activity. “Interacting socially is going to result in transmission if the virus is there,” he says. “There are going to be opportunities for the virus to spread.”

Will these parks close again or have delayed openings?

News of Disneyland and Disney World’s reopening was met with mixed reviews. And, if case counts continue to rise, it’s easy to assume that reopening may be delayed. Disney also makes it clear online that its reopenings are “pending state and local government approvals.”

But Adalja is doubtful that public health officials will close or delay reopening of theme parks (as well as other businesses) again due to potential economic and political repercussions. “I don’t think there is going to be much political will for any kind of stay-at-home orders to be initiated again,” he says. “It’s unlikely politicians will completely close things down.”

Overall, Adalja anticipates that people will make their own decisions about risk-taking, and act accordingly when it comes to visiting amusement parks. “If there are cases linked to amusement parks and people are worried, they probably just won’t go,” he says.

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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