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What small businesses can learn from Disney about masks, distancing

Workers were trained in ways to express themselves while wearing a face mask.

Social media is full of images of people getting into shouting matches over face masks. Yet at Walt Disney World, a worker reminds a mother to put a mask on her child in a stroller, and she does it without question.

The hospitality industry is based on the idea of doing whatever it takes to make the customer happy. The Ritz-Carlton famously gives its workers up to $2,000 to resolve conflicts.

But, in the midst of a pandemic, companies large and small are trying to figure out how to enforce face mask and social distancing guidelines without angering their customers.

In July, one infectious disease expert said Walt Disney World’s reopening was a “terrible idea” that was “inviting disaster.” Social media users attacked Disney as “irresponsible” and “clueless” for pressing forward as coronavirus cases surged in Florida. Disney World marketing videos were turned into parody trailers for horror films.

Guests get their temperature taken as they arrive at Epcot at Walt Disney World.
Guests get their temperature taken as they arrive at Epcot at Walt Disney World. [ JOE BURBANK | AP ]

But no outbreaks have been reported at Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Six Flags, Legoland and Cedar Fair parks in Florida, Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia and Michigan, according to state health agencies and theme park officials.

All of Florida’s theme parks, which land on the top 10 list of the most-visited tourist attractions in the world, reopened under heavy criticism, yet not one has been shown to be a super spreader of the virus, said Dr. Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, which includes Disney World.

The reason, public health officials say, is they listened and enforced the guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control. Sometimes while ignoring the politicians.

Despite the relaxation of regulations by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Disney World has not changed its self-imposed capacity limits, according to a Disney spokeswoman. They also have adjusted some of their policies since reopening.

Related: Disney cracks down on face mask loophole: Be still while eating

At first, bandannas and neck gaiters were acceptable face coverings, but all Disney World visitors must now wear masks, and employees police whether they are being worn correctly.

After workers complained that patrons were walking around with their masks pulled down while eating food like turkey legs, the park updated its mandatory mask policy, requiring visitors to eat in one place while maintaining social distance.

“They did a lot of work ahead of time and they spent a lot of money.” said Duncan Dickson, a recently retired University of Central Florida professor of hospitality who was once a Disney executive. “All of that is intended so guests will feel safe at Universal or SeaWorld or Disney. They want the guest perception to know that it’s OK to come here.”

Guests stop to take a selfie at Magic Kingdom Park when it reopened on July 11.
Guests stop to take a selfie at Magic Kingdom Park when it reopened on July 11. [ MATT STROSHANE | Matt Stroshane, Photographer ]

Before it reopened on July 11, Disney World installed plastic dividers on its famous monorail, at its restaurants, in its ride queues and as holding pens for guests in the pre-show rooms. Hand sanitizer stations sprouted up.

It also put up a blunt “know before you go” litany on its website, followed by a light-hearted video featuring the cast of The Incredibles, telling kids they can be a superhero by wearing a mask. They put up signs in the parking lots and around the parks about face mask and social distancing policies.

But a passive sign isn’t as effective, a spokeswoman said, as having a worker in place at the entrances telling guests to expect that the policies will be enforced throughout their stay.

According to Disney training documents, workers were trained in ways to express themselves while wearing a face mask. They learned to smile with their eyes, put their hand on their heart to express joy and wave “jazz hands” to show excitement.

“This is Disney’s shot to show the world what the theme park industry can do to operate as safely as possible in the current environment," said Robert Niles, who writes the Theme Park Insider blog.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean all public events can have the same success, said Dr. Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health at the University of South Florida.

“Disney is an entirely private venue, and the rules of engagement there are, by definition, substantively different than those in a football game, Gasparilla or other public event,” Wolfson said, noting that it’s an environment that is disciplined, highly structured and with the ability to control and eject participants.

“It remains an issue of manifest personal responsibility, respect for others and common sense,” Wolfson said. “But those things are struggling within a community that is very tired, worn out, and eager, if not desperate, for returning to the socialization and entertainment experiences upon which they have historically thrived."

Dickson, who spent his career working and studying the hospitality industry, said he is disheartened by the bars and restaurants he sees packing people in.

“These theme parks aren’t making a nickel right now,” Dixson said, “but if you look at the long term, people feel safe going there. I know that’s hard in the short term for bars and restaurants, but we have to do this so we can come back as a society.”

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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