Theme Parks & COVID-19: What Infectious Disease Experts Want You to Know

Your family has likely been cooped up in the house for months, and you may be looking for ways to break the routine and go have some much-needed fun outside. If your kind of fun involves rollercoasters and cotton candy, however, then there are definitely a few things you should know before you go to a theme park.

“There are safe ways to go to a theme park, but it’s complex,” Gabriela Andujar Vazquez M.D., an infectious disease physician and associate hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, tells Romper. The overall safety of going to an amusement park depends on whether or not the park is fully outdoors, what masking and distancing rules are in place, and where the park is located. One of the first things parents can do before deciding to go to a theme park is ask themselves if the benefits outweigh the risks, Vazquez suggests.

“Do we really have to go to an amusement park?” Vazquez suggests asking yourself. “Maybe; we have been going through a pandemic and people need to have fun. But we need to balance the safety of everyone and make sure we’re not making things worse.”

If you do decide that spending a day at a theme park is something you want to do, it's helpful to remember that, “going to a theme park during the COVID-19 pandemic is likely, at least, a moderate risk activity,” Margaret E. McCort, M.D., an infectious disease specialist with Montefiore Health System, tells Romper. She adds that because of the close conditions, respiratory viruses like colds and chickenpox have circulated in theme parks long before COVID. “If you or someone you live with is at high risk for complications from COVID-19 consider putting off the activity, especially if [the virus] is circulating heavily in your area,” McCort says. Read on for six things you should consider before heading to a theme park.

1. "Will everyone be wearing a mask?"

Even if the theme park is totally outdoors, everyone from staff to other visitors should be wearing masks. This is true even if your family is able to remain appropriately socially distanced from other groups. You'll want to see people wearing masks in line, on rides, in the bathroom, and while walking around. "Everyone in the family should be wearing masks the entire time," McCort tells Romper. In addition to face coverings, don't forget to pack the hand sanitizer. "There's a lot of surface touching at theme parks, and so washing hands or using hand sanitizer in between rides may be a good idea if you have small children who touch their faces frequently, as this could be a way to pick up germs."

2. "What's the plan for food?"

For sure, your children are going to get hungry, and they're going to make it known. The park's restaurant should utilize mobile ordering and contactless payment, which minimizes the amount of surface and hand-to-hand touching, Vazquez says. Just as in any restaurant, there should be no buffets or communal condiments (like ketchup on the tables).

If it can be avoided, try to skip any self-service operations (pre-packaged foods and drinks). In their reopening guidelines, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions encourages theme parks to, "[add] signs that remind guests to only handle what they intend to purchase. For added safety and to reduce contact, consider removing pre-packaged items and make them only available by request from an employee."

The best option is to bring in your own lunch (if you're allowed to) and eat away from other groups. "Consider opting for a picnic with your household rather than communal eating in a crowded food court or restaurant," McCort tells Romper. "Risk of transmission is higher during mealtimes because people remove their masks and tend to talk to one another, which could spread virus."

3. "How much of the park is outdoors?"

You want to make sure you're in a well-ventilated area, ideally completely outdoors, while at a theme park. The highest risk for transmission of COVID-19 comes from close contact with other groups in areas where there is no ventilation. Be mindful of rides (and lines) that go through closed tunnels, and avoid going indoors for any reason other than using the bathroom. While you should wash your hands frequently and try to avoid touching your face, "standing in a crowded line or eating in an indoor area may be the [riskiest] activities, since [coronavirus] is mainly spread through respiratory routes," McCort tells Romper.

4. "Are the restrooms clean?"

If you gotta go, you gotta go (especially if you're a child) so using a restroom may be unavoidable. Restrooms at theme parks should have open windows to allow for ventilation and the number of people allowed inside at once should be limited. "The risk of transmission from a clean, uncrowded public restroom can be fairly low if you wear a mask and wash your hands well," McCort says. Keep your mask on in the bathroom, try to avoid too much contact with surfaces, and definitely wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before you leave.

5. "Is the park allowing full capacity?"

One of the best things a theme park can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to simply limit the number of people allowed in the park at a time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considerations for amusement parks and carnivals state that the most moderate risk is when "park operations are open with modifications to allow for social distancing of at least six feet between individuals or household groups." The highest risk? Full capacity with no plan in place for distancing. If possible, the theme park should stagger the arrival time of guests and workers, Vazquez says. While you can't make the park's rules, Vazquez adds that one way you can control your own risk for transmission is by limiting the time you spend in the park and leaving if it seems to be crowded or if social distancing does not appear to be working.

6. "Are there games or shared equipment?"

The CDC guidelines say that carnival and amusement park games should be limited to self-service machines that can be played by one person at a time. You want to limit the amount of face-to-face interactions you have (this is also the reason that it's best to buy tickets online and opt for contactless ordering). Your kids should skip games that are crowded with multiple players or that use anything that other hands have touched, like a water gun or darts. "Anything involving shared equipment, like a virtual reality attraction where headsets are shared, should be avoided," McCort tells Romper.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here.

Photo: Getty Images

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