“When will Walt Disney World’s mask policy end?” and “will face coverings still be required in 2021 or 2022?” are common questions. The latter is usually some variant, asking whether masks will be mandatory in Summer 2021.
We’ll start by underscoring the reality that Madame Leota is not employed by this blog, which is to say that we don’t have a crystal ball. In fact, no one knows for sure when Walt Disney World will drop the face mask rule.
This is a fluid situation. New information and circumstances change on a daily basis, and public health recommendations continue to evolve. (The CDC updates their guidance monthly!) In fact, if you asked a dozen public health experts to pinpoint a date when face masks will no longer be “necessary,” you’d probably get 12 different answers–some months or seasons apart.
Nevertheless, we’re going to delve into the topic here, attempting our best to speculate as to when Walt Disney World may no longer require face masks in the parks and at the resorts. Of course, it won’t be a definitive answer, but we hope it’ll offer semi-informed guidance based upon analysis and credible sources.
Distilled to the simplest terms, there are a few factors that dictate Walt Disney World’s official health safety policies: 1) guidance from health authorities, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and appropriate federal and local government agencies; 2) Orange County health officials and leaders; and 3) business rationale. It thus makes sense to examine how each variable could impact the the face mask rule in 2021.
In a recent interview with NBC News, Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases predicted that the United States could achieve herd immunity by “the end of the second quarter 2021” after vaccines are more widely deployed, depending on the efficiency of the rollout.
Fauci stated that “sometime by the end of March, the beginning of April, that the normal healthy man and woman in the street who has no underlying conditions would likely get [the vaccine].”
However, Fauci also said that precautionary public health measures–such as face mask usage, physical distancing, capacity limitations, and enhanced hygiene protocols–are likely to continue “several months into the second half and beyond of 2021.”
“Only when you get the level of infection in society so low that it’s no longer a public health threat can you then think about the possibility of then pulling back on public health measures,” Fauci said. This is fairly consistent with his other statements and timelines he’s provided in recent interviews.
On the state level, although Florida’s Full Phase 3 Reopening suspends fines for not complying with face mask restrictions in public spaces, it did not eliminate the Orange County mask mandate. While compliance is now voluntary in public spaces, the county has leaned on businesses to continue enforcing the mandate.
To that point, private businesses can still operate with any self-imposed restrictions under Florida’s reopening rules. This means Publix, Walt Disney World, or any other business in the state can still deny entry to those not wearing masks, or following any other rules. This isn’t anything new or novel. Those same businesses could deny entry to potential patrons not wearing shirts or shoes, despite there being no state-wide law requiring either of those articles of clothing, either.
On the local level, Orange County’s Health Officer Dr. Raul Pino has repeatedly stated that the county’s mask mandate will likely continue through Spring 2021.
In describing the “logistical nightmare” of distributing vaccines on an accelerated timeline in late December, Dr. Pino added that “even when you are vaccinated, you should continue to wear your mask, you should continue to wash your hands and keep your distance.”
Other public health experts have expressed similar sentiment about face masks sticking around beyond general public distribution of a vaccine. This is because studies don’t yet show whether the vaccine prevents someone from being an asymptomatic carrier and spreading the virus to others. In theory, it’s possible that a vaccinated person could still be contagious to others. As such, those who get the vaccine should still be wearing masks and practicing physical distancing.
Epidemiologists also point out that the vaccine will be one layer of protection. It’ll protect you if the virus reaches your body, while wearing a mask and physical distancing further reduce the chances that the virus will reach your body in the first place. It’s a patchwork approach, with no form of protection having 100% efficacy.
Finally, there’s the business or economic rationale for Walt Disney World’s face mask rule. They would never publicly state as much, but these rules are undoubtedly shaped by Disney’s reputation as a safe, family-friendly company that goes “above and beyond.”
The health protocol that were implemented went further than what was required, and this was to offer enhanced guest and Cast Member safety–but it was also a calculated business decision. Reopening was a controversial decision at the time, but Disney demonstrated the ability to operate in a safe and responsible manner. In so doing, they managed to appeal to a subset of the population in the short-term while alienating as few of their core demographic as possible in the long-term.
To be sure, Walt Disney World’s health policies have proven divisive. This has been the most controversial topic we’ve ever covered on the blog, with the comments section on every post devolving into heated arguments, personal attacks, and ranting without fail. Many readers have vowed not to visit Walt Disney World with these rules in place–or have sworn off Disney altogether.
However, that would be the case no matter what route Walt Disney World chose–staying closed, opening with minimal rules or recommendations, or implementing the current requirements. It was an no-win position that would upset some people no matter the path forward.
Regardless of where you stand on these issues and rules, there’s no denying Disney’s business acumen. The company’s approach was savvy–embracing the policy that comports with the company’s reputation and is most palatable to their key demographic, but allows them to operate in some capacity.
In looking at public health surveys broken down by age, income, and education levels from last summer, it’s no surprise that Walt Disney World made the decision and implemented the rules they did.
Obviously, surveys are not static. In the last two months, there’s been a decline in the percentage who say they always wear a mask when they leave their home. Per a recent HealthDay/Harris Poll, 66% of U.S. adults surveyed said they “always” wear a mask when leaving their home, down from 72% in October when that number peaked.
Another December poll from Kaiser does a deeper dive into the numbers and shows higher face mask compliance, including how much longer people are willing to follow current public health guidance. The largest segment is willing to do so “until a vaccine is widely available,” but a growing percentage has a lower threshold. Additionally, there is heightened pessimism and an increased perception that the seriousness is being exaggerated.
It’s impossible to predict what the future holds, but one potential scenario seems possible. Following a post-Christmas spike and peak, new cases plummet beginning around early February. (Hardly a bold prediction given past trends around holidays.) Simultaneous with that, vaccine distribution accelerates. Obviously, the percentage of the population that has either been infected or vaccinated will continue increasing through the winter and into spring.
All of that coupled with further fatigue and the feeling that the worst is behind us could shift public perspective on masking and physical distancing. Given that masks primarily protect others from the wearer, they require a critical mass. If there’s waning use, even stronger advocates will abandon them.
Given all of those factors, the survey numbers could be inverted from where they presently stand as of April or May 2021. Regardless of what experts recommend or would like to see, there will be declining face mask numbers as immunity increases. The question of there is not “if” that happens, but by how much?
Another potential consideration is the position of Cast Member unions. In their reopening negotiations with Walt Disney World, they advocated for requiring guests to wear face masks. While that was their stance at the time, the rule would’ve happen regardless for myriad other reasons.
Going forward, the unions could theoretically push for a mask rule even after the company is ready to relax or eliminate it. We see this as highly unlikely. For one, the unions have very little leverage at present given unemployment numbers in Central Florida. For another thing, Disney’s and the unions’ interests align here. Relaxing health safety protocol means more people in the parks, which means more Cast Members returning to work. If that can happen in a low-risk way, the unions will almost certainly agree to it.
For Walt Disney World, the potential future dilemma is handling health safety rules if public perception shifts faster than guidance from the CDC and health experts. Disney Parks has communicated policies via their Chief Medical Officer, constantly reiterating that they’re following the recommendations of health and safety experts. What happens if/when that guidance is at odds with Disney’s business interests and public sentiment?
Ultimately, our expectation is that Walt Disney World will eliminate the face mask rule and further relax physical distancing as soon as it’s pragmatic. This will not be like bag check that’s still around two decades after 9/11. Walt Disney World’s current rules are alienating some guests and these rules are what’s necessitating a cap on attendance, which means a significant negative impact to the bottom line.
At this point, it’s impossible to accurately predict a date when face masks will no longer be required at Walt Disney World. Nevertheless, our expectation is that the rule sticks around until at least Summer 2021. This won’t be flipping a switch going from tons of protocol to a total free for all–it’ll be incremental. The likely next step is transitioning from a rule to a recommendation, which could potentially encompass late summer and early fall. (Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary is on October 1, 2021–relaxing current health safety rules by then is likely Disney’s target if at all possible.) Obviously, the situation is fluid and evolving, but we do not foresee Walt Disney World having a face mask rule come 2022.
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!