How to react to the new CDC mask guidance without scaring visitors

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Even a trip to the SeaWorld San Antonio restroom reminds visitors that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over.

The theme park has plastered signs on the walls of restrooms, at entrances to restaurants and other indoor locations warning: “You are entering an indoor area. Face coverings are recommended for all people.

An image of a head with a face mask is an added touch to remind visitors that the delta variant is spreading and causing disease at an alarming rate.

Signs increased after the Centers for Disease Control last week reversed its guidelines from mid-May that masks were no longer needed in most cases for those who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. The new directive says that even those who have been vaccinated should “wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of ​​high or high transmission” – like San Antonio.

However, almost all visitors to SeaWorld ignore the message and walk inside unmasked. And unlike the days leading up to mid-May, when SeaWorld employees faced visitors without masks, they are no longer contested.

CDC’s new focus tests theme parks and other tourist attractions on how to respond to the challenges of the delta variant without scaring guests. They don’t want a repeat of last summer, when COVID-19 fears hammered attendance once they reopened after government-mandated closures.

This summer is different, with visitor numbers approaching pre-pandemic levels in some cases. Yet even in the Red State of Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott banned government mask warrants, theme parks are privately owned. They have the power to set new rules, said Carissa Baker, assistant professor at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida.

But Baker, who specializes in theme parks, said she wouldn’t count on them to do it. Theme parks want to encourage guests to visit carefree – and mask requirements are a bad memory of the pandemic.

“There is no doubt that the guests are quite tired from wearing the mask and the pandemic in general,” she said.

Signs posted at SeaWorld inform customers that masks are recommended.

Randy Diamond / Personal Photographer

SeaWorld Sea Antonio president Byron Surrett said his park is just being cautious with its recommended mask policy.

“We are following the guidelines of the CDC,” he said. “They only recommend the use of an indoor mask.”

The Six Flags approach

Just 25.7 miles away, San Antonio’s other theme park has an entirely different message, ignoring the CDC’s new mask guidelines. Instead, Six Flags Fiesta Texas is promoting the policy it announced after the CDC’s announcement in late May, relieving people of masks in most cases.

The statement on the park’s website on Wednesday: “COVID-19 protocol update – No more masks required if vaccinated.”

A sign in front of the entrance to the theme park also tells people who have been vaccinated that no mask is required. The announcement and signage indicates that mask wear is recommended for unvaccinated guests.

A park spokesperson said new guidelines may be possible.

“We are evaluating the latest CDC recommendations and will make updates as necessary with the health and safety of our guests and team members in mind and in accordance with applicable law,” he said. declared.

Much of Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld San Antonio are outdoors. But Six Flags has two indoor rides, indoor restaurants, gift shops and a large indoor theater with over 3,000 seats. Sea World has plenty of indoor spaces, including aquarium displays, indoor restaurants, souvenir shops, and an indoor theater with over 500 seats.

“People don’t want”

More than 400 people – almost all unmasked – packed into SeaWorld’s indoor Sea Star Theater last Saturday to see Elmo, Cookie Monster and other furry friends from Sesame Street sing and dance in a children’s musical revue. The crowd included several hundred children.

“People don’t want to wear masks anymore,” said a Sea Star Theater employee after the fourth and final Sesame Street show on July 31.

In fact, it was hard to find a masked visitor anywhere in the 250-acre park, indoor aquarium exhibits, and restroom restaurants.

Theme park expert Martin Lewison, associate professor of business management at Farmingdale State College in New York City, said he was not surprised that few visitors wear masks at SeaWorld – even in a crowded theater .

“It’s not like there’s poison gas in the area and you’re going to drop dead for not wearing a mask inside a theater,” he said.

Unlike Texas, Six Flags and SeaWorld parks in California require masks to be worn under new state orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19. SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida has adopted the same policy recommending indoor masks as in San Antonio. Six Flags does not have parks in Florida.

Lewison said the anti-regulation approach of Texas politicians could feature in Six Flags and SeaWorld looking the other way in terms of mask rules.

“So there may be an attitude about government regulations in general that may lead to not standing to attention,” he said.

Disney culture

The operator most strictly responding to the CDC’s new recommendations is the Walt Disney Co. Its flagship park complex, Walt Disney World in central Florida, announced the next day that all visitors, regardless of vaccination status, must wear protective clothing. masks inside.

The Disneyland Resort in Southern California also has rules for masks in indoor locations, although they have also been mandated by California authorities.

“Disney has a certain culture of behavior for guests,” Lewison said. “And if Disney says this is the rule, people are likely to follow the rules.”

Baker, who was at Walt Disney World last week, said nearly 100% of guests wear masks that comply with Disney’s new rules. Ride attendants at indoor attractions kindly reminded visitors to put on their masks.

SeaWorld’s Surrett said, “Disney is the outlier.”

Other major theme park companies are doing what SeaWorld is doing in light of the CDC’s new guidelines and recommending masks for guests when they’re inside, he said.

Mario Gonzalez-Fuentes, associate professor of marketing in the business administration department at Trinity University, said the reluctance of San Antonio theme parks to adopt stricter rules is understandable. Forcing guests to wear masks again could increase fears about the pandemic and reduce attendance, which is still recovering.

“People may think that if everyone has to wear a mask, maybe it’s not safe and I should cancel this trip to SeaWorld or Six Flags,” he said.

If the wave of delta variants continues, Baker said, Texas theme park operators may have no choice but to revert not only to mandatory masking, but also to social distancing and limits. capacity.

“This has been one of the toughest times for this industry in its entire history and I think we’ve seen the industry collapse once before and we don’t want it anymore,” she said. . “But I think it’s a cautious, wait-and-see approach and we can just hope it doesn’t need to go beyond current guidelines.”

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