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California has cleared theme parks to reopen after more than seven months of coronavirus closures provided they follow newly issued COVID-19 health and safety guidelines, but Disney, Universal and other large parks won’t be able to return for weeks or months.

California Health and Human Services secretary Mark Ghaly announced during a news conference on Tuesday, Oct. 20 that amusement parks reopening guidelines have been added to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s four-tier Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, SeaWorld San Diego, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Legoland California and other California theme parks can reopen under newly issued protocols that required mandatory masks, social distancing, increased sanitization, reduced attraction capacity and employee training.

California officials issued separate reopening guidelines for smaller and larger theme parks in the state. Small theme parks can reopen in the “moderate” tier while large theme parks can return in the “minimal” tier.

Most California counties with major theme parks fall into the second-most restrictive “substantial” risk level — including Orange (Disneyland and Knott’s), San Diego (SeaWorld and Legoland) and Solano (Six Flags Discovery Kingdom).

Los Angeles County — home to Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain — is in the most restrictive “widespread” risk level.

Santa Clara County — home to California’s Great America and the smaller Gilroy Gardens and Happy Hollow parks — is in the second-least restrictive “moderate” risk level.

The new guidelines mean Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood and other large theme parks won’t be able to reopen for weeks or months until their respective counties reach the least-restrictive “minimal” risk level.

At best, that means major California theme parks won’t reopen until November or December. At worst, reopening dates could be pushed to next year. Which makes setting a reopening date for Disneyland, Universal and other California theme parks difficult if not impossible. Without a firm reopening date, the parks can’t set staffing, training, ride testing and visitor reservation plans.

Back in June, Universal Studios Hollywood, Six Flags Magic Mountain, SeaWorld San Diego and Legoland California all announced proposed July 1 reopening dates. Disneyland and Disney California Adventure proposed reopening on July 17 — the 65th anniversary of Disneyland. By late June, a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in California forced theme parks to postpone their plans while they awaited reopening guidelines from the state. Since then, theme parks have been left waiting on the sidelines while other segments of the economy have reopened under Newsom’s four-tier Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

After six months of frustration, California theme parks began ratcheting up pressure on Newsom and calling on the state to issue COVID-19 guidelines that would allow them to reopen. The pandemic has cost major players like Six Flags and SeaWorld tens of millions. Industry leaders like Disney and Universal have suffered financial losses that have reached the billions.

California theme parks were set to reopen in Stage 3 of the state’s original roadmap for reopening plan. But the “roadmap” was shelved in favor of the “blueprint” when progress slowed in the fight against the virus and the state became stuck in Stage 2. Large California counties — where most theme parks are located — could find it just as difficult to reach the lowest-risk “minimal” tier.

Only seven California counties — with a combined population of 238,000 people — have reached the lowest-risk “minimal” tier. Southern California theme parks are located in the three largest counties in the state — home to more than 16 million people. California counties can reach the “minimal” risk tier once they have less than one daily new COVID-19 case per 100,000 people and less than 2% positive tests.

The extended closures have had a devastating impact on hotels, restaurants and businesses surrounding the California theme parks and area cities that depend on tourism-based tax revenue. Since Disneyland closed, Anaheim’s budget deficit has climbed to $100 million and the city’s unemployment has risen to 15%.

The parks furloughed thousands of employees followed by layoffs as the closures stretched from weeks to months. Disney laid off 28,000 employees at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in late September as the company continued to struggle with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of its Anaheim theme parks.

The extended closures have had a devastating impact on hotels, restaurants and businesses surrounding the California theme parks and area cities that depend on tourism-based tax revenue. Since Disneyland closed, Anaheim’s budget deficit has climbed to $100 million and the city’s unemployment has risen to 15%.

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By Richard Moran

Richard Moran loves to write about sports with the Golden State Online. Before that, he worked as a senior writer at ESPN. Richard grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of San Diego in 2004, after which he worked as an editor for five years.

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