What Disney Can Teach Us About Covid-19: Lockdowns Fail

Two states and two Disneys—California vs. Florida—and their radically different approaches to dealing with the pandemic.


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The happiest place on Earth has been mostly closed for about 10 months and probably won't be re-opening anytime soon.

California isn't allowing theme parks to re-open until the counties they're located in have fewer than one COVID-19 infection per 100,000 residents for seven consecutive days. In Orange County, the current rate exceeds that amount by about 90 fold.

"We're going to be stubborn about it," California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) said in October of 2020.

Newsom's stubbornness is unique. Every other Disney property in the world has re-opened. (In California, some of Disney's retail and dining are open, but the rides and attractions remain closed.)

The city of Anaheim, where the Mouse provides 78,000 jobs and is the center of the local economy, looks like a ghost town.

Disney World in Orlando opened in July of 2020 as Florida's case rate was climbing.

"The reopening amounts to a breathtaking effort by a corporation to prove that it can safely operate…at a highly dangerous time," The New York Times observed at the time.

YouTubers created dark parodies, mocking the idea that the re-opening would cause outbreaks, which never came to pass.

This is the tale of two very different approaches to managing the pandemic and their impact on local economies. There's no evidence that Newsom's lockdowns have substantially stopped the spread of COVID-19.

The media savaged Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) when he and a handful of Southern GOP governors pushed to re-open most businesses in early summer 2020. DeSantis's strategy from the get-go had been to shield seniors by issuing executive orders to temporarily ban nursing home visitations and prohibit re-admission of COVID-positive patients. (New York's Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, in contrast, forced nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients).

A couple of months later, with case rates falling, National Review editor Rich Lowry asked, "Where Does Ron DeSantis Go to Get His Apology?"

But when cases surged over the summer, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik delivered on the requested apology: "Sorry, you're even worse than I imagined," he wrote.

By the end of the summer, however, cases were falling in Florida, and rising in areas of the country that were in full or partial lockdown.

California, which had the nation's most stringent policies related to COVID-19, began to experience a massive second wave in November. Florida was also seeing a spike in cases and deaths, though it was less severe.

While the California and Florida approaches to COVID-19 were vastly different, their outcomes began to look remarkably similar.

If some in the media had been too quick to condemn DeSantis, others had also been too quick to declare victory for Newsom. In April, the Atlantic had extolled California's "dramatic success in containing the coronavirus pandemic."

What is clear about the impact of Newsom's policies is that they've taken a devastating toll on working-class California residents.  The Golden State shed eight percent of its jobs (compared to five percent in Florida). It also experienced the fifth-highest drop in GDP among U.S. states and a much higher drop in tax revenue.

California now has more total cases per capita and is approaching Florida's total deaths per capita despite having a younger population.

California residents have been flouting the lockdowns and challenging them in court. A recall petition for Gov. Newsom has gathered more than three-quarters of the required 1.5 million signatures to make the ballot.

"There are probably 50,000 people in a three-square-mile [radius] that are unemployed right now due to the governor's order," says Fred Brown, who has been the general manager of Desert Palms Hotel in the literal shadow of Disneyland for 24 years. So far, he has had to lay off 80 employees, including his own daughter.

"If we don't have guests, I don't know how long some of these hotel owners are going to be able to last without throwing in the towel and going into bankruptcy," says Brown.

Mike Afram shut down his shuttle company in March, laid off 100 employees, and has been unable to re-open since.

"I don't think the state of California has done the best job keeping businesses afloat," says Afram.

Trevor O'Neil, an Anaheim City Council member, says tourism accounts for almost $100 million of annual tax revenue for Anaheim.

"This is a death knell for tens of thousands of jobs. These are working-class jobs and hundreds of small businesses in and around the resort," says O'Neil. "[Newsom] is usurping precious freedoms away from the private sector and increasing our residents' and our workers' reliance on government just to get by."

Disney is known for its expert handling of logistics, and the company drew widespread praise when it brought back the NBA Playoffs here in Florida by creating a so-called "NBA bubble" that successfully prevented any players or staff from contracting the coronavirus over a two-month span.

California is also home to Universal Studios and Six Flags, in addition to smaller amusement parks with no giant corporate backer to float them through a 10-month shutdown.

The contrast between California and Florida reflects growing evidence that lockdowns are not an effective strategy for managing a viral respiratory epidemic, despite early studies suggesting otherwise.

A June 2020 paper in Nature claimed that lockdowns would save 3-4 million lives worldwide, but it assumed that as they stretched on, lockdowns would remain just as effective as in the early days of the pandemic. After it was published, places with stringent lockdowns, including California, the United Kingdom, and Italy, experienced second waves.

A possible reason is that lockdowns become less effective over time because the public grows weary of the social isolation and starts gathering in private households on a more frequent basis.

According to contact tracing data in New York, 74 percent of cases were contracted inside people's homes.

Big city mayors who promoted aggressive lockdowns are beginning to change tack even amidst large caseloads. Chicago's Lori Lightfoot and Washington, D.C.'s, Muriel Bowser have pushed for re-opening restaurants for indoor dining, and San Francisco and L.A.'s mayors have allowed outdoor dining to resume.

A January 5 study by a research team at Stanford compared countries that shut down "non-essential" businesses with ones that took less restrictive public health measures, like only banning large events and discouraging international travel. It found "no evidence that … [more stringent] lockdowns" contributed substantially to bringing down the case rate.

Economist Lyman Stone told Reason in May of 2020 that his study of the lockdowns reveals no correlation between the timing of a state or nationwide stay-at-home order and the spread of the virus

Stone's early findings are consistent with the Stanford study, which found that exposure to information about the virus and its risks was "a stronger driver of anti-contagion behaviors than the specific nature of the [government restrictions]."

Neither California's statewide restrictions nor Florida's more laissez-faire approach have proven effective at suppressing the virus. But various Asian governments and Australia have, for now, mostly accomplished that feat—and not primarily through lockdowns.

For instance, the densely populated city of Hong Kong has experienced fewer than 200 COVID-19 deaths in a population that exceeds 7 million. But the authorities there imposed only one short-lived lockdown in a single neighborhood experiencing an outbreak in mid-January. Stone attributes the overall low case rate to the city-state's aggressive travel restrictions and targeted public health measures such as early mask recommendations and centralized quarantine of the sick.

Newsom lifted his stay-at-home order on January 25 on the grounds ICUs will have the required capacity in several weeks, but the state has withheld some of the data they used to make that projection. Theme parks will remain closed.

In the meantime, Disneyland has opened one of its parking lots as Orange County's largest vaccination site.

So far, California has had one of the slowest vaccine rollouts in the nation.

"Without the rollout of the vaccine… proving not to be the best rollout as compared to the other states, maybe there's a way we can responsibly sooner open up so that we can get back to business and back to surviving," says Afram.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Isaac Reese. Additional camera by John Osterhoudt. 

Photo credits: Pool/ABACA/Newscom; JIM RUYMEN/UPI/Newscom; Jeff Gritchen/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom Jeff Gritchen/ZUMA Press/Newscom Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Kim Klement/TNS/Newscom; Rafael Ben-Ari/Rafael Ben Ari/Newscom; Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune/TNS/Newscom; Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/Newscom; JIM RUYMEN/UPI/Newscom; Image of Sport/Newscom; Watchara Phomicinda/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Greg Lovett/ZUMA.

Music credits: "Happy Gypsy" by Max H.; "Floating Point" by Roei Shpigler; "No Longer Afraid," "Shadows Rise," "Dawn Drift" by Doug Kaufman licensed through Artlist.