In a move with potentially significant implications for Walt Disney World, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance on July 27, 2021. In this post, we’ll share the changes, where they apply, and the likelihood that Disney will follow suit.
The CDC’s new recommendation is that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors when in areas with substantial and high levels of community transmission of COVID-19, which includes nearly two-thirds of the United States, including both Osceola and Orange Counties in Florida, where Walt Disney World calls home.
During a press conference on Tuesday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that “in recent days I have seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that the Delta variant behaves uniquely and differently from past strains of the virus that cause COVID-19. This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations.”
“This is not a decision that we or CDC has made lightly,” said Walensky, stressing that the decision weighed on her and the CDC leadership. They understand that Americans are tired, frustrated, and fatigued after over a year of the pandemic.
The agency said fully vaccinated people should wear masks in “public, indoor settings” in areas of the country with substantial or high levels of transmission, as defined by the CDC.
In looking at the “COVID-19 Integrated County View” on the CDC’s website, it appears that every single county in Florida, almost all of the South, most of the lower Midwest, and some of the West has a high level of community transmission. (Orange County, California–home to Disneyland–also has a high level of transmission.)
The CDC’s change for high transmission areas was reportedly made due to the higher viral loads of the Delta variant, including those found in breakthrough infections among the vaccinated. Overall, fully vaccinated people still play a small role in transmission, breakthrough infections are rare, and severe outcomes are unlikely for the vaccinated.
However, those fully vaccinated individuals with breakthrough infections can pose a risk of onward transmission to others, which was not believed to be the case prior to the Delta variant gaining prevalence. This means that children under 12 (who cannot yet be vaccinated) and immunocompromised individuals (who do not get the same protections from vaccines) would be at increased risk. In essence, the increased viral loads and prevalence of the Delta variant necessitated an update to face masks as source control for the fully vaccinated.
Of course, much has changed since the CDC relaxed its mask guidance for the fully vaccinated in mid-May. At the time, vaccine uptake was strong, but the prevailing belief was that the changes would incentivize further inoculations. Moreover, the Delta variant only represented 1% of reported infections in the United States. Now, it represents at least 83% of cases according to the CDC.
President Biden addressed the CDC’s guidance change, as well. “Today’s announcement by the CDC, that new research and concerns about the Delta variant leads the CDC to recommend a return to masking in parts of the country, is another step on our journey to defeating this virus,” he said.
This comes two weeks after Orange County Mayor Demings said during a health briefing: “It is my official recommendation that Orange County return to the status in which it is recommended all residents, vaccinated and unvaccinated, consider wearing facial coverings indoors when in crowded environments.”
More recently, Demings has expressed a desire for Orange County businesses to reimpose mask rules, while also conceding that he had explored “all options” for re-imposing a face mask mandate but concluded his hands were tied. This was due to an earlier executive order that was signed into law by Governor DeSantis and went into effect on July 1 restricting what the state’s leaders can do during pandemics.
We mention this because in the past Walt Disney World followed the lead of the CDC and Orange County in gradually relaxing its face mask rules, physical distancing, and health safety protocol.
While it would seemingly stand to reason that Disney would follow those same leads in reinstating said policies, that may not be the case. Mayor Demings has been requesting exactly this of Orange County businesses and individuals for the last 2 weeks. During that time, Walt Disney World has continued full steam ahead in its phased reopening, with attendance and crowds increasing during that time.
However, the difference is that the CDC has a much higher profile. While we watch the Orange County health briefings every week, they generally only have a few hundred to a few thousand views, and are covered quickly by the local news. By contrast, this new guidance by the CDC is likely going to be the lead story on the nightly national news. Every tourist planning a trip to Walt Disney World will be aware of this.
While I have offered no shortage of predictions in the past about if and when Walt Disney World would change health safety rules, I don’t have the slightest inkling as to what they’ll do next here. I could see this one going either way.
In that scenario, they’d likely revert to the present policies once Florida’s current surge subsides (as we discussed earlier today, that could happen in 2-3 weeks). I haven’t heard any rumblings that this is going to happen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s still possible such a change happens late on Friday afternoon.
Another scenario, which I view as the slightly more likely one, is that Walt Disney World leaves its official rules unchanged but updates its health safety guidance with a line like: “Pursuant to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we strongly recommend that all guests, regardless of vaccination status, wear face coverings in all indoor locations and upon entering and throughout all attractions and transportation except ferry boats.”
In this second scenario, there would be no enforcement by Cast Members since it’s only a strong recommendation. This would have a number of benefits for Disney, while also not putting already overburdened Cast Members in the positions of confronting hostile guests. It would shift the onus for health safety and mask wearing to individuals, more of whom would likely prefer to decide for themselves whether to mask up than was the case a year or even 4 months ago. As always, this is a calculated economic decision as much as it is a health safety one.
While I would expect the majority of American businesses to opt for this second option, the equation for Disney might be different due to its reputation as a family-friendly business that caters largely to the under 12 demographic. I’d say it’s about 40/60, but I truly I do not know. Your guess is as good as mine–we should all know which path Disney chooses within a few days. Regardless, we will be closely monitoring DisneyWorld.com’s “Know Before You Go” page for rule changes throughout the coming days, and will keep you posted!