Physical Distancing Relaxed in Disney World’s Orange County

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings held a press conference on April 28, 2021 during which he revealed a three phased plan for returning to normalcy, eventually lifting face mask mandates and immediately relaxing physical distancing. This could result in rule relaxations at Walt Disney World, which calls Orange County, Florida home.

This comes one day after the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the latest set of recommendations for fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people. In case you missed it, we covered that in New CDC Mask Guidance Won’t Impact Walt Disney World.

While it’s interesting to see what’s changing and why, the title there really says it all–those new guidelines won’t pave the way for a loosening of Walt Disney World’s temporary health safety protocol. Conversely, this new phased plan from Orange County, the first phase of which takes effect immediately, could have significant implications for Walt Disney World…

Let’s start with a rundown of each tier in Orange County’s new executive order:

Phase 1 – Effective Immediately:

  • Reduce physical distance from 6 to 3 feet in all settings.
  • Fully vaccinated individuals should follow CDC guidelines for wearing facial coverings

Phase 2 – Effective when 50% of the population age 16+ has received their first dose of the vaccine:

  • Facial covering mandate for outdoors lifted for all individuals.
  • Physical distancing of at least 3 feet between groups is encouraged.
  • Facial coverings still required for indoors, except when eating or drinking.

Phase 3 – Effective when 70% of the population age 16 or older has received their first dose of the vaccine and/or Orange County’s 14-day rolling positivity rate is 5% or below.

  • All mandates lifted

Now, for some commentary, beginning with what’s effective immediately. The second part of this incorporates the new CDC guidance by reference. Again, there are no implications for Walt Disney World there. However, that does give the green light for fully vaccinated Americans to go without masks outdoors when walking, jogging, or biking outdoors, dining with friends at outdoor restaurants, and having small outdoor gatherings with a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

The new CDC guidance also allows for unvaccinated individuals to go without masks when walking, jogging or biking outdoors. Our expectation was that this would bring an end to outdoor mask mandates in many public spaces, but apparently Orange County is saving that for the second phase, as the first phase only defers to the CDC guidance with regard to fully vaccinated individuals.

The more interesting component of this is the relaxation of physical distancing from 6 feet to 3 feet. I was curious as to what basis Orange County used to justify this rule change (as there have been conflicting studies and recommendations among health experts on the issue recently), so I dug into the actual executive order issued today.

Per that, the physical distancing change is predicated upon last month’s CDC guidance for K-12 schools, which indicated physical distancing could be safely reduced from six feet to three feet with universal masking. At the time, we pointed out that guidance could pave the way for the rule to be relaxed in non-school settings, but there haven’t been many instances of that. Nevertheless, good for Orange County to use that as a basis for its rule change.

Schools are not the only setting where health experts have found physical distancing could be relaxed with universal masking. In a new study released earlier this week, the University of Central Florida (UCF) and International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) concluded that theme parks could safely lower physical distancing requirements from six feet to three feet.

That human research study analyzed droplet volume, quantity, and size while participants coughed and spoke. Ultimately, UCF and IAAPA concluded that when wearing a face mask, the range of exhalation is under 2.5 feet (significantly lower for multi-layer masks).

When we talk rule relaxation here, most of you are understandably more interested in face masks than physical distancing. I can’t say I’ve encountered many people who are champing at the bit to stand closer to sweaty tourists in line. To the contrary, we’ve heard from many readers who enjoy the extra space, and hope physical distancing sticks around indefinitely.

However, that’s (also understandably) not Walt Disney World’s perspective. Capacity caps are the biggest impediment to profitability right now, and those are dictated by industrial engineering estimates of what’s necessary to ensure adequate physical distancing.

In a nutshell, physical distancing is what’s preventing higher attendance, and that has a ripple effect on myriad aspects of operations, from dining to entertainment. So even if you may not like the direct consequences of a physical distancing relaxation, you likely do want its indirect benefits on the guest experience.

The big immediate upside would be more Park Pass reservation availability. Many readers have reported issues scoring those, which are once again fully booked for many dates even after Walt Disney World added tons of Park Pass availability for Summer 2021.

It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando do with this new face mask and physical distancing executive order from Orange County. The county’s rules are significant as they establish the earliest possible timeframes for Walt Disney World to relax or lift its own health safety protocol. This means that physical distancing could be relaxed in the parks immediately, and attendance caps increased.

This should not be construed to mean Walt Disney World will change its rules simultaneous with Orange County–just that now they finally can do so. In the case of physical distancing, we suspect Walt Disney World will follow the lead of Orange County because it’s advantageous to do so and offers the company “cover” for the decision. (It’s more likely than not that Disney was consulted in the drafting of this executive order given their power in Central Florida; at the very least, the company knew it was coming.) Waiting around for definitive word from the CDC is a big gamble, and Disney doesn’t have the same influence to wield there.

If I had to guess, I’d say that Walt Disney World will wait until at least next week (early May 2021) before making an official announcement. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, even if Disney was involved or consulted with regard to Orange County’s phased plan, the company is still slow-moving and likely will take a few days to ‘assess and adjust.’

Second, because Disneyland’s “historic” reopening is about to occur after a year-plus closure, and that will likely garner positive media coverage and headlines. It’s doubtful that Disney would want to risk pairing that upbeat story with headlines that it’s “bringing crowds back” to Florida (or however that news might be spun–but you can bet it won’t be positive).

Where Orange County’s executive order presents more of a potential problem is with regard to face mask rules. If the latest numbers are any indication, the county is going to have a tough time ever hitting 70% on vaccinations. Thankfully, the third phase alternatively allows for all mandates to be lifted on the basis of rolling test positivity. That should be more easily achievable, especially if nationwide numbers plummet in May, as some experts expect. The 5% positivity rate is much more attainable–Orange County, California is already at 1.4%.

Again, 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 for how Walt Disney World would relax physical distancing in queues and elsewhere, my guess is that we see the “please wait here” markers disappear almost entirely. Three feet is more or less natural human spacing; removing those markers and having sandwich boards and occasional overhead announcements reminding people to “keep a safe distance” from other parties would be sufficient. Installing even more markers seems unlikely and excessive to me.

If the markers are removed entirely, you can expect that process to take several days, if not weeks, to implement. It would make sense to start with attractions that are notorious for lengthy overflow queues that spill out into other parts of the parks. Moreover, there may be some locations where Disney chooses to retain them. Those are all simply my guesses, though. Who knows, Walt Disney World may wait for definitive word from the CDC before changing anything. I just don’t see that happening when they have every business incentive to relax physical distancing, which guests are doing themselves regardless, especially if mask rules remain in place. Perhaps not the news you wanted to hear, but it would be another significant milestone in the gradual return to normalcy.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Any expectations or predictions on if or when Walt Disney World will relax its physical distancing standard to 3 feet? Think any Central Florida theme parks will follow suit, or do you expect they’ll wait for CDC guidance or something else? Please keep the comments civil. This is not the place for arguing about efficacy, 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.

50 Responses to “Physical Distancing Relaxed in Disney World’s Orange County”
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