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Is it safe for Disney World to reopen this weekend as coronavirus cases soar in Florida?

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

As Walt Disney World prepares to reopen on Saturday, Florida has recorded the largest weekly increase in coronavirus cases in the country.

In just the past seven days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state has added nearly 67,000 cases. With more than 206,000 cases statewide, according to the Florida Department of Health, the Sunshine State is a coronavirus hot spot.

Orlando, which is about 30 minutes northeast of Disney World, has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in Florida behind Miami. On Monday, Miami began rolling back its reopening, as Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez halted dine-in services at restaurants and closing gyms, party venues and short-term rentals.

Disney has delayed the July 17 reopening of Disneyland in California, in part because that state, too, has seen a surge in coronavirus cases.

For Disney World, though, the reopening remains on schedule for this weekend.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday dismissed concerns about reopening the theme park.

"I have no doubt it’s going to be a safe environment," he said in a news conference.

The union that represents hundreds of stage actors who work at Disney World isn't as confident.

"I can’t imagine that anyone thinks it’s wise to reopen a theme park this week," Kate Shindle, president of the Actors Equity Association, told USA TODAY.

Joseph Khabbaza, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, said the park should be safe for visitors if people keep their distance from others, wash their hands and use hand sanitizer, don't touch their faces often and wear a face mask.

That, he added, would depend on compliance and enforcement.

"The spreading is really occurring where people are standing shoulder to shoulder," Khabbaza said. "Things can be enforced on a resort."

He said Florida's coronavirus surge has been driven by younger people who have crowded restaurants, bars and beaches as the state has reopened (though it has since banned alcohol consumption in bars again).

"Disney, I think, is in a very different position," he said, noting that it will be their house, and therefore their rules.

A Disney spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Disney World announced in late May that it would be reopening its Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom on July 11, followed by Epcot and Disney Hollywood Studios on July 15.

The jump in coronavirus cases have all come in the weeks since Disney made its announcement.

At the same time Disney World is reopening to the public, it is also hosting the National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer as both sportleagues set to get their seasons back on track.

Last week, the NBA said 25 of its players and 10 of its employees have tested positive for the coronavirus. Several MLS players have also tested positive.

The league's best player, Carlos Vela of Los Angeles Football Club, announced on Twitter Monday that he would not travel to Orlando for any games.

"It is in the best interest of the health of my family to stay home and be with my wife during what is a risky pregnancy," Vela tweeted. "I will miss being with my teammates and coaches, but I will be cheering and supporting LAFC from a distance."

Disney is taking precautions at the park, requiring temperature checks and face masks for visitors over the age of two and employees. A squad of cast members will enforce social distancing and the mask requirement. Disney has canceled fireworks, parades, meet-and-greets and other activities that would encourage large group gatherings. The park will operate below capacity, though Disney has not provided specific numbers or percentages. (When the company reopened its first part in Shanghai, China in May, CEO Bob Chapek said it would limit visitors to under 30% of capacity, or 24,000.)

Still, the Actors Equity Association wants Disney to test the stage actors it represents.

"We are still advocating aggressively for our members to have testing as a part of their return to work," Shindle said.

Shindle cited the death of Broadway actor Nick Cordero on Sunday as an example of the devastating impact of the virus. Cordero, 41, had been hospitalized since March, had one leg amputated because of blood clots and battled infection in both lungs.

Those who survive the coronavirus can be left with permanent lung damage.

"This is not a disease to be taken lightly," Shindle said. "It can have a long-term effect on making your living as a performer, even if you are lucky enough to survive."

Khabbaza, who treats coronavirus patients, said anyone on Disney property, whether actors, athletes or visitors, should be fine as long as they follow the guidelines and Disney enforces them.

"All it takes is one Disney-centered outbreak or cluster to start before they have to shut down," he warned.

This story originally published to USAToday.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.