California theme parks call Newsom rules ‘offensive,’ say litigation possible

By Victoria Colliver

10/21/2020 06:13 PM EDT

OAKLAND — California theme park operators said Wednesday they’re not ruling out the possibility of filing a lawsuit over the state’s newly issued reopening guidance, which they believe could keep large parks closed indefinitely.

Executives from the state’s largest theme parks — including Disneyland, Universal Studios and Legoland California — raised objections to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new requirements that their counties must have very low infection rates before they can reopen. They contended that their industry is being treated unfairly compared to others.

“We want to be safe. We have integrity around that and to be told that we’re not and we’re not going to operate is offensive, in my opinion,” said Raffi Kaprelyan, regional vice president of Cedar Fair, which operates Knott’s Berry Farm, California’s Great America and Gilroy Gardens. He said park leaders are willing to work with the state, but “if not, all options are open for us.”

Background: The theme parks have been closed statewide since mid-March amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

After going back and forth with industry officials over potential rules, state health officials on Tuesday finally released guidance laying out the conditions under which their venues can open. But the park operators accused the state of ignoring their input.

Under the protocols, large parks — those defined as having a capacity of more than 15,000 visitors — can’t reopen until their county is in the yellow tier, which requires less than one new case per 100,000 residents daily. Parks that open will have to limit capacity to just 25 percent and abide by a number of rules, including admissions only by reservation and having park employees to contact all visitors within 24 hours of arrival to ask if they or someone in their household is exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms.

Under the rules, smaller parks will be allowed to reopen in the orange, or second-least-restrictive, tier where infections are not as low.

California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said Tuesday that the state was differentiating between large theme parks and other entertainment venues in part because destination parks draw visitors from across the world. That could make tracing more difficult and brings people to California from areas with higher rates of infection.

The objections: The park operators called the rules overly onerous, but said their primary objection is the tier threshold, which they say will not allow them to open anytime soon. So far, the only urban county to achieve yellow status has been San Francisco, which moved to the lowest tier on Tuesday. Los Angeles County remains stubbornly in purple, the highest-infection tier, while Orange and San Diego counties are one level down in red.page1image36694144page1image63038656

Kurt Stocks, president of Legoland California Resort, said the administration’s announcement Tuesday that fans can return to outdoor pro sports stadiums in orange-tier counties “show the inequities in the administration’s reopening plans.” He pointed out that zoos, museums, aquariums and entertainment centers have been allowed to reopen earlier with no distinctions between their capacities.

“At the heart of it, we don’t see the guidelines as based in science or facts,” said Karen Irwin, president of Universal Studios Hollywood, who stressed getting the park’s employees back to work.

Officials in Orange County, where Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm are located, have called for the state to allow theme parks to reopen. The county’s public health officer on Tuesday noted that under the state’s guidelines, it may take until next summer for large theme parks to open there.

What’s next: Park officials said they want to continue to work with state officials, and they called on residents to reach out to the governor’s office or their government representatives to lobby on their behalf. Officials from Newsom’s administration did not immediately return requests for comment Wednesday.

Disneyland Resort President Ken Potrock stressed the industry is not in an “entrenched” position. “We are flexible. We are open minded,” he said. “We are looking for data and science- based solutions, and we stand ready to do that at a moment’s notice.”

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