Disney World employees describe the cost of staying safe as coronavirus cases surge in Florida

disney world reopening pandemic coronavirus 2x1

  • Walt Disney World in Florida began its staggered reopening
    process earlier this month.
  • Over 432,700 people in Florida have
    tested positive
    for COVID-19, putting the state ahead of New
    York in confirmed cases.�
  • Business Insider spoke to four cast members who have recently
    been called back to Walt Disney World regarding their experiences
    returning to work with new guidelines amid the pandemic.
  • Each reported feeling that Disney had thus far succeeded in
    creating safe conditions for reopening but described a fundamental
    shift in their jobs, with physical and social barriers making it
    harder to keep the magic alive at the “Happiest Place on
    Earth.”
  • “We’re encouraged by our guests’ positive feedback and
    cast members’ diligence for our phased reopening and are grateful
    for their support of the new measures we’ve added,” a Disney
    spokesperson said in a statement. “We are taking a cautious and
    deliberate approach which allows us to evaluate and adjust along
    the way, as the situation evolves.”
  • Visit Business
    Insider’s homepage for more stories
    .

For Kristen Gainey, the pandemic became real the day Disney
World closed. 

“To think that something that barely closes for hurricanes and
stuff is shut down, was kind of crazy,” said the Walt Disney World
cosmetologist who has worked in the Florida theme park for the last
eight years.

Gainey was one of
43,000 Disney workers,
or “cast members,” who were furloughed
from work in April after the parks closed in March for the first
time since the 9/11 attacks. Now, after nearly three months, Gainey
and thousands of other Central Florida-based employees have been
called back to staff the parks during a staggered reopening process
that began July 11.

“We’re encouraged by our guests’ positive feedback and cast
members’ diligence for our phased reopening and are grateful for
their support of the new measures we’ve added,” a Disney
spokesperson said in a statement. “We are taking a cautious and
deliberate approach which allows us to evaluate and adjust along
the way, as the situation evolves.”

Business Insider spoke to four cast members who have recently
been called back to Walt Disney World regarding their experiences
returning to work with new guidelines amid the pandemic. Each
reported feeling that Disney had thus far succeeded in creating
safe conditions for reopening. At the same time, cast members
described a fundamental shift in their jobs, with physical and
social barriers making it harder to keep the magic alive at the
“Happiest Place on Earth.”

How Disney readied its parks for a pandemic

Before its staggered reopening process began in early July,
Disney said it
would limit the daily capacity of guests in its parks, increase
social distancing and cleaning measures, and require all visitors
over the age of two and cast members to wear face masks while in
the parks. Many of the new safety procedures were implemented in
conjunction with Unite Here! Local 362, a union representing 5,000
Disney World park greeters, attractions workers, and
custodians.

Armed with new safety guidelines, materials, and protocols,
Disney reopened two of its four parks on July 11. The next day,
Florida hit a
new record
for daily coronavirus cases with more than 15,000
infections.

“To their credit, Disney is being very responsive,” said Unite
Here! Local 362 president Eric Clinton, who has worked closely with
Disney throughout the entire closing, furlough, and reopening
process. Disney said that it still shapes and updates its safety
protocol based on feedback from cast members and guidance from
public health and government authorities.

In negotiating conditions for the return to work, the union
bargained for Disney to provide each cast member with a thermometer
upon request to self-monitor and for a more lenient attendance
policy that does not penalize employees for missing extra days due
to illness.

Speaking to Business Insider from within a routine check-in at
Animal Kingdom last week, Clinton said the union also addresses
problems as they arise in real-time. For example, Disney World
recently updated its initial guidelines and
banned guests from eating while walking
after feedback from
cast members via the union.

“There’s trepidation involved,” said Paul Cox, an entertainment
technician who works in Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports. Cox was
called back to work at the end of June to assist with the opening
of the NBA season in the complex.

“But I do believe that it is as safe as possible given the
current circumstances,” he said.

A Disney veteran of over 10 years and the president of IATSE Local 631, a union that
represents stagehands and show technicians at Disney World, Cox was
also involved in negotiations regarding reopening. So far, the
technician said he is impressed with the results.

“I feel safer going to work than I do going to Publix,” a local
grocery store, said Cox, a sentiment that is shared by the other
three cast members that spoke to Business Insider.

Bill Coan, CEO of entertainment solutions and technology company
ITEC and a former attraction development for Walt Disney
Imagineering, said the reopening is just another testament to the
capabilities of the mammoth company, which he regards as the “Gold
Standard” when it comes to entertainment and safety.

“I would say that it’s a significant success,” said Coan, whose
company developed a health and safety solution for theme parks to
safely reopen.

‘Survivor’s guilt’

Despite feeling safe, cast members said fundamental changes have
made for a new atmosphere in the parks. On top of learning new
safety and cleaning protocols, getting used to the new environment
at the “Happiest Place on Earth” has been more difficult than some
cast members expected. 

At the most basic level, the mask requirement makes it harder
for employees to convey a sign of friendliness via a simple smile.
In other cases, the restrictions are less tangible, like not being
able to take a family photo for a party. This small gesture is
something Animal Kingdom attractions worker Jessica Lella said she
has missed the most since returning to the park.

“It’s a total different atmosphere,” said Candyice Montville, a
food and beverage worker at Disney’s Animal Kingdom park. Montville
described how she used to dance with and high-five guests regularly
to make them feel welcome during pre-pandemic times. Now, she
explained, such interactions are considered risky.

“That’s a challenge for us too and for them, because we’re all
social people,” the Disney cast member of two years said.

Disney said it is working with cast members to rethink guest
services by using techniques such as smiling with their eyes,
waving from a distance, and encouraging selfies among guests.

Meanwhile, some of the theme parks’ 70,000 cast members have still not been called back to the
park, including about
750 performers
represented by the New York-based Actors’ Equity
Association. According to Disney, the decision to call cast members
back is based on a variety of factors, though the plan is to bring
more back eventually. The company added that it is still paying
health care premiums for eligible cast members who are
furloughed.

Still, some fortunate enough to return to work have described
feeling uncomfortable with their luck.

“I almost have a sense of survivor’s guilt every day when I go
to work.” Cox, the entertainment technician, related. Gainey also
described feeling a sense of survivor’s guilt, especially as
unemployment benefits begin to run out.

“We’re very grateful to be at our jobs and to be back and it’s
so nice to see everyone,” the cosmetologist said, describing how
many of her guest-facing roles — like styling hair for a
Disney-based wedding or in the currently-closed Harmony Barber Shop
on Main Street — have been halted for now. “But it’s very, very
different. And stressful.”

Luckily for Disney employees, keeping up a positive attitude
isn’t anything they aren’t used to.

“We’re here to make magic, regardless of the situation,”
Montville said. “Because people come to Disney to have fun.”

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Source: FS – All – Entertainment – News
Disney World employees describe the cost of staying safe as
coronavirus cases surge in Florida