In the last week plus, there has been news about the future of face mask mandates and physical distancing in Orange County. (Walt Disney World’s home in Florida–not to be confused with the other Orange County in California where Disneyland is located!) This post will present a straightforward recap the latest developments, without our usual commentary.
We’ll start by quickly recapping rules in Orange County. Months ago, Florida fully reopened and in so doing, lifted capacity restrictions and undercut enforcement mechanisms for local mask mandates. Irrespective of that, Orange County has retained its rules, as have the county’s theme parks. This is permissible under Florida’s reopening executive order, which expressly allows for private businesses to operate with any self-imposed restrictions (think “no shirt, no shoes, noservice” rules).
Beyond that, companies like Disney will not defy Orange County’s rules. Opinions on whether they should or not are irrelevant, because they simply won’t. It’s a nonstarter. Disney learned several years ago in Orange County (California edition, this time) the pitfalls of having an adversarial relationship with local governments.
As such, the actions and statements of Orange County (Florida again) are significant as they establish the earliest possible timeframes for Walt Disney World relaxing or lifting its mask and physical distancing rules. This should not be construed to mean Walt Disney World will change its rules simultaneous with Orange County–just that they won’t before then.
Now let’s turn to where things presently stand. Last week, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings stated that local health officials have begun devising a plan to reduce occupancy restrictions on some businesses, loosen physical distancing requirements, and some face mask requirements.
Orange County, Florida’s plan is being crafted with advice from the CDC, epidemiologists, and on the basis of public health data on vaccinations and infection rates. The mayor did not go into specifics about what the plan would entail, expect that it would occur in phases and could be based on a businesses’ indoor and outdoor capacity.
With regard to the last point, Demings did suggest that the phased plan will have differences in indoor and outdoor locations. Even though mask mandates often have lacked such a distinction, this would be consistent with CDC recommendations, which have always differed for indoor v. outdoor activities.
Since that plan was teased, prominent publications like Slate and The Atlantic have proposed an end to, or “off ramp” for, outdoor mask mandates. Israel, which offers a potential preview into what the U.S. numbers will look like in another month if vaccination rates hold, lifted its outdoor mask mandate over the weekend.
Demings did not indicate whether the outdoor mask mandate would be lifted or relaxed. He also didn’t list specific businesses that would be beneficiaries of the plan, save for restaurants. He indicated that this plan could allow capacity to be increased so dining establishments could accommodate more patrons. It’s not difficult to extrapolate from those comments how that could impact Walt Disney World’s operations.
In last week’s post about Walt Disney World adding tons of Park Pass availability for Summer 2021, we speculated that Disney could have knowledge of the plan’s specifics or even influence over its crafting. (While Disney would not defy Orange County, the company absolutely wields significant local power and could have a say in such plans.) This plan is expected to be officially unveiled any day now.
Following that, Orange County unveiled the “I Got My Shot” public safety campaign last week. This is designed to debunk vaccine myths, highlight trusted voices in the community, and encourage residents to get vaccinated and become advocates.
The campaign is a collaboration between the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, Orange County Government, and corporate partners across Central Florida. Per the county, both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando are such partners, although neither theme park operator has issued press releases or anything in support of the public health safety campaign.
Fast-forward to Mayor Jerry Demings press conference this week, where he stated that he’s still weighing a timeline to phase out some restrictions, but estimated that the mask mandate as a whole could be lifted by late summer. He attributed the hesitancy to rising case and hospitalization numbers, and a pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine distribution. It also comes two weeks after Florida opened vaccine eligibility to all (and the same day all U.S. adults became eligible), during which time Orange County has seen a slowdown in its rate of vaccinations.
Demings said, “those dynamics have caused us to reevaluate our phasing methodology.” He also indicated that it’s likely physical distancing and capacity rules would be relaxed before the mask mandate ends. None of this is necessarily inconsistent with the comments from last week, but it does suggest a light pumping of the brakes–especially as the aforementioned phased plan was originally expected late last week.
Previously, the mayor has said he wants at least 50% of Orange County’s population vaccinated before ending the face mask requirement. At present, approximately 30% of Orange County residents are partially or fully immunized. Of residents over age 40, that number jumps to over 50%. So significant progress has been made, but still needs to be made in the younger cohort.
Orange County officials are meeting with health experts this week to discuss ending the face mask requirement, but it’s expected that nothing will change until vaccination, case, and hospitalization metrics improve. Ending on a positive note, former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb (who has become my favorite voice in the last year as a straight-shooter who offers nuanced analysis and tells the truth, good or bad, rather than what he thinks people supposedly need to hear) stated that’s exactly what he expects to happen.
In an interview yesterday, Gottlieb said: ““We’re never going to virtually eliminate this virus…but I think you’re going to start to see cases come down quite dramatically as we get into May.” As always, this is an evolving topic with guidance, rules, and recommendations subject to change. If case numbers do plummet and vaccinations continue increasing in May, that could certainly bode well for summertime changes at Walt Disney World.
Any expectations or predictions on when or how Orange County will relax or lift its physical distancing and/or face mask mandates? Think Walt Disney World and/or Universal Orlando will follow suit when Orange County makes changes, or do you expect either/both will wait for CDC guidance or something else? Please keep the comments civil. This is not the place for arguing about efficacy of NPIs, politics, and so forth—all such comments will be deleted, irrespective of perspective. You are not going to change anyone’s mind via the comments section on this blog, nor are you going to change Disney’s rules or public policy. If you wish to contest this, rather than yelling into the internet abyss, have your voice heard in a meaningful way by contacting Disney or your local elected officials.