ORLANDO, Fla. — Quarantined alone for weeks, Kristen Hariton listens to Walt Disney World ride soundtracks while she works in her one-bedroom condo.
Her music playlist is the best she can do right now since she has lost her happiest place on Earth.
Hariton says she would do anything, including wear a mask, to return to the theme parks again.
“I truly believe if there’s anything we can do as individuals to make our collective group safer, I’m certainly willing to do that,” said Hariton, an annual Disney passholder from New Jersey who works for a real estate tech company.
Face masks could be mandatory for tourists whenever Disney and Universal theme parks reopen. The potential policy has fueled a debate that previews some of the enforcement challenges ahead as the parks devise safety plans for the highly contagious coronavirus.
“Along with social distancing, one of the things that we are likely going to require is masks for both the cast and the guest,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said in a May 11 interview on CNBC. He acknowledged the biggest challenge to reopening Disneyland and Disney World would be visitors adjusting to face coverings.
Several theme-park connected businesses are opening this month at Universal CityWalk and Disney Springs with mask requirements in place for employees and visitors.
“Yes, we are considering face coverings,” Universal spokesman Tom Schroder wrote in an email. “We will use the learnings we gain from our CityWalk reopening along with continued guidance from the CDC and health professionals to make a decision about our theme park operating protocols.”
SeaWorld theme parks will require masks for employees, the company said earlier this month, although company officials declined to say if those rules would apply to visitors, too.
What about children?
Lilly Ahmed can already picture the disaster of trying to persuade her three young sons who don’t understand the word “pandemic” to cover their faces.
Her boys, ages 4, 6 and 7, are all on the autism spectrum, which makes communication a challenge and their senses extremely sensitive. New sensations of feeling masks on their faces and the scents trapped in would terrify them, said Ahmed, who lives in London.
“It’s an impossible request to ask anybody, in all fairness,” Ahmed said, who is nervous about rule changes if Disney and Universal reopen in time for her summer vacation. “How would you enforce it with children with disabilities, or anyone with disabilities?”
One medical expert praised the parks for looking seriously at masks, although she agreed enforcement will be tough, especially for children and people with disabilities.
“Masks are essential,” said Dr. Marcia Katz, associate dean for clinical affairs at the University of Central Florida’s medical school. “If you want to be safe and create a safe environment for other people, you have to wear a mask.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends cloth mask coverings because a significant number of people don’t show symptoms while still passing the virus to others. However, not everyone should wear a mask.
CDC cites exemptions for children under 2, people with breathing problems and those who couldn’t take masks off on their own.
Katz also stressed different types of masks offer varying levels of protection. An N95 mask, for instance, is more effective compared with a simple cloth covering, she said.
Medical professionals say social distancing protocols and regularly hand washing are equally important as Disney plans for a future reopening.
The issue of wearing masks at theme parks isn’t likely to fade soon.
The contagion doesn’t appear to be going away, said Orlando Health Dr. Patricia Couto, who focuses on infectious diseases.
“We have to learn to live with this virus,” Couto warned.
Meanwhile, theme park fans churned on social media with what-ifs scenarios. What if I’m on a high-speed roller coaster or a water ride or posing for photographs? Must I leave it on then?
Across the world from Orlando, visitors wearing Mickey Mouse ears and face masks streamed into Disney’s Shanghai park in China while “When You Wish Upon a Star” played over loudspeakers during its reopening on May 11 after a 3 1/2-month coronavirus shutdown.
Even before the coronavirus, theme parks writer Robb Alvey said it wasn’t unusual to see people whizzing by on a roller coaster with masks on at the Asian parks.
“It’s no big deal,” said Alvey, who once purchased a Donald Duck-decorated mask for his daughter.
In Asia, face masks have long been commonplace in public areas because of the high-density population and a history of other pandemics, said Xiang “Robert” Li, director of Temple University’s U.S.-Asia Center for Tourism and Hospitality Research.
“People are more receptive to the idea of wearing masks,” Li said.
In Western culture, Li said, people tend to feel a mask broadcasts they are sick.
Welcome to summer in Orlando that Sarah Perry describes as a “wet blanket on top of you.”
It’s hot. Humid. Sweaty. Now, add a face covering to that.
“Having a mask on is going to make it that much heavier to breathe,” said Perry, an annual passholder who is a surgical nurse at Orlando Health.
But Disney and Universal-goers already brave far worse than cloth on their faces, argued Alvey, who runs Theme Park Review.
He pointed to the Universal fans dressed in full-fledged Harry Potter robes and elaborate Halloween costumes at Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party as proof of what’s possible to wear in Orlando’s heat.
Perry doubts Americans unfamiliar with masks can properly take them on and off without contaminating them.
To keep visitors safe, Perry said Disney should undergo more extreme measures, such as not allowing anyone over age 65 — the age group most vulnerable to the virus — or residents outside of the state who may travel from more highly infected areas than Florida.
“I do think masks are important,” Perry said. “But it cannot be the only thing that a big organization like Disney does. It has to be part of the solution. I’m looking forward to what other ideas Disney puts out.”
Melissa Fass hasn’t forgotten about her Orlando friends who work at the theme parks, so she is glad Disney is considering precautions, such as masks, to keep them protected.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Fass, who left her Disney World merchandising job a few months ago and now lives near Huntsville, Ala., and works in the airline industry.
But she also worries about confrontations between tourists opposed to a mask policy and her former co-workers stuck enforcing it.
An Orlando Sentinel investigation last year found tourists sometimes verbally and even physically abused theme park workers, according to Orange County sheriff’s records. What often triggered visitors’ outbursts were employees politely asking them to obey the rules for FastPasses, strollers and routine operating procedures.
Could Disney workers get pushback over a more controversial policy?
“There is a potential for belligerence or other unpleasantries,” said Neal Shanske, an online marketing entrepreneur who lives in Boston and visits Disney World once or twice a year. “Every cast member becomes a frontline sheriff or deputy.”
“I don’t see how they could open without some form of mask policy, but it will be tricky to maintain … What works in Shanghai may not necessarily work in Orlando.”
Disney plans to deploy hotel employees who work at children-activities centers into the theme parks to help visitors understand the new rules.
But attractions consultant Brad Merriman believes Disney World employees will have an easier time early on enforcing a mask policy because crowds are expected to be drastically reduced.
The masks are a clear sign that Disney, the industry leader, has safety procedures in place, he said.
“(Masks) may feel new and unusual, but it gives guests a feeling of safety and security,” said Merriman, president of MR-ProFun, comparing it to the way tourists felt when Disney added bag checks and beefed-up security after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Disney’s CEO said employees and guests will have to cooperate with each other to make the mask policy work.
“Everybody knows COVID-19 is a serious matter,” Chapek said in his CNBC interview. “We’re going to do our part, and we need our guests to do their part, too.”
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel