VANCOUVER—Amusement park season is upon us, but dates for when Canadians will be able to start riding their favourite roller-coasters or indulging in gut-busting funnel cakes remains as elusive as winning the soda-bottle ring toss.
After taking a huge financial hit last year — the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions estimates that the pandemic caused $23 billion in economic losses across the industry in the United States — operators say they are eager to reopen in the coming weeks.
But debate is roiling among health-care professionals and the public at large about whether it’s just too soon, especially as COVID-19 variants spread and more young people present with severe complications.
Vancouver’s Playland — home to one of North America’s most iconic wooden roller-coasters — had planned to reopen this Saturday, inviting guests to join in “safe, clean fun” under strict safety protocols, including reduced capacity and mandatory face coverings. But late Tuesday the park announced it was delaying its reopening for a few weeks after provincial health officials raised concerns that the fairgrounds could attract travellers from outside the regional health authority, in violation of current restrictions on non-essential travel within the province.
“Due to this concern, we were asked to remain closed until after the May long weekend to support the provincial circuit breaker,” a news release said.
Toronto’s Wonderland announced in January plans to reopen May 14, but when the Star reached out this week to confirm if that was still going ahead, Grace Peacock, the director of communications, said: “I’m sorry I don’t have an update at this time. As soon as I do, I will send along to you.” She did not respond to followup emails asking what discussions were taking place.
Bob Williams, general manager of Calgary’s Calaway Park, said he’s eyeing May 22 to reopen, but still finalizing safety protocols with provincial health officials. He noted that a survey carried out by Calaway of Canada’s zoos, aquariums, amusement parks and small family entertainment facilities found that a couple of dozen are currently open and another 35 are eyeing reopenings in May and June.
“Outdoor facilities can be quite safe,” he said.
Some health professionals, however, are adamant that now is not the time to be encouraging Canadians to attend mass attractions, even with protocols in place.
Prior to Playland’s announcement late Tuesday , Dr. Anna Wolak, a Vancouver family physician and UBC clinical professor, was among those who took to social media to express their dismay.
“Outdoor play is essential,” she wrote in a tweet thread. “It doesn’t have to be at an amusement park.”
Wolak told the Star said she decided to go public with her concerns after hearing the news in recent days about young children dying of COVID-19, including 13-year-old Emily Viegas in Brampton.
“I think that kind of broke me. That was the straw that broke my back,” she said.
Wolak, a mother of three, said there’s no question outdoor activities are safer, but they’re not necessarily risk-free. She would prefer amusement park operators wait until the third wave is over and people have been vaccinated at least once before thinking of reopening.
“Would I rather see children playing outdoors than hanging out in someone’s basement? Of course, because we do know that outdoors is safer,” she said.
“But outdoor play can be outdoor on a playground in your local park.”
Wolak said she’s not only concerned about the safety of guests but also front-line workers who, for instance, have to clean up after other people’s vomit when they’ve taken the roller-coaster one too many times or eaten too many mini-donuts.
“You’re putting that person in the line of fire. They’re exposed. They’re going to take it home to their roommates or they’re going to take it home and expose their parents or grandparents. It’s just a chain of transmission that is going to continue,” she said.
“It’s just too much risk for something that is non-essential.”
Dr. Zain Chagla, a professor of medicine at McMaster University, said he, too, thinks amusement parks should reopen only after there is a “relatively high vaccine rate in the population” and COVID-19 “rates come down.”
Come down by how much?
“Probably to under 100 cases per day in the province, plus no health-care strains,” he said.
Chagla added that park safety protocols should include restrictions on capacity, minimizing indoor dining, physical distancing on rides and consideration of mandatory masking outdoors, especially in crowded lineups.
But with the right “harm reduction” approaches, there is no reason why amusement parks shouldn’t reopen, says Dr. Stefan Baral, a Toronto family and population health physician.
There is a case to be made that people need outlets right now to have fun and socialize during this pandemic so that they have the energy to “sustain the fight against the virus.”
Baral notes he has relatives in the United States who have visited Disney World in Florida during the pandemic and who reported feeling very safe while there.
He added the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission from people yelling and screaming on outdoor rides is likely negligible since they are moving.
That said, park operators must ensure protections are in place for guests and staff, particularly those employees working in less-visible positions. Are there measures in place so they don’t feel compelled to go to work if they feel sick? Are there enhanced occupational health protocols, such as improved ventilation and rapid testing on-site?
Additionally, if guests fall sick after they’ve purchased their tickets, is there a way for them to switch their attendance to another day?
“In short, it can be done safely,” he said.
The international association representing the attractions industry has published online a lengthy list of suggested guidelines for reopening during the pandemic. It recommends parks consider requiring all riders to wear masks, installing barriers on rides to restrict air movement between guests or leaving seats and rows unoccupied to facilitate distancing, and reducing capacity.
“For your readers and consumers, they should feel confident and excited to return to their favourite park,” said Susie Storey, the association’s spokesperson.
“Last year was devastating for the industry. Many parks did not open at all. Some had very tight and restricted seasons. … They are really excited to reopen again.”
Storey encourages guests to review safety protocols on park websites before their visits and to contact parks directly if they have questions.
“People have been in their homes for a year or really have not done very much,” she said.
“We know there is a pent-up demand to return.”