Despite pleas from local senators and Busch Gardens officials, it doesn’t seem as though an opening date for the park is in the near future.
When Gov. Ralph Northam announced the new restrictions for Virginia entering Phase 3 of reopening, he included theme parks as entertainment venues which restricted their capacity to 1,000 guests.
Busch Gardens has said it wouldn’t be financially viable to open with that capacity limit.
During a James City County Board of Supervisors meeting on June 23, Kevin Lembke, president of Busch Gardens, said the company was disappointed with the decision and would be in discussions with the governor’s office to find a way to increase this number for theme parks.
Lembke said no decisions have been made since then.
“We continue to collaborate with the governor’s team and with our local and state representatives in finding the best way forward,” Lembke said Tuesday. “For us, it’s about finding the best way forward that balances the health concerns as well as the economic impacts not only to our own business…but to the greater community as well.”
Lembke said Busch Gardens is an integral part of the local economy because so many businesses rely on the tourists that come to the area for the park. But without a definite operating date, there’s no way to know when or even if the area can prepare for guests.
Park officials had created a potential plan for reopening that involves social distancing, sanitation and would allow for 5,000 to 7,000 guests to enter the park. Lembke said the plan incorporates different aspects of the park that set it apart from other businesses in the entertainment category.
“What we have tried to do from the beginning is make clear how our operations are unique from any other public venue,” he said. “And I think that information of how we’re differentiated from folks listed on that guidance of entertainment venues…is critical.”
Busch Gardens’ acreage and outdoor design creates a different environment for the park than other businesses categorized as entertainment under Phase 3 reopening guidelines.
The coronavirus pandemic has also caused Water Country USA to remain closed for a large portion of its operating season. The park typically operates throughout the summer until Labor Day and Lembke said as the restrictions continues, the problem becomes a calendar issue.
Other parks owned by SeaWorld, Busch Gardens’ parent company, have reopened which allows the Williamsburg location to learn from those operations.
“As changes evolve, we do the same to our plan,” Lembke said. “There are also parks in our company operating today so they’re learning in real time and we take that into consideration and continue to adapt our plan.”
The coronavirus pandemic caused Busch Gardens to close before its season even began and as a result, the company has had to decrease staff. While the company would need time to bring back the staff and update them on operating procedures, it can’t start doing so until a reopening date is set.
“We need to understand where the guidelines are going to land,” Lembke said. “In the meantime, that does mean we are at a reduced staff and in order to get any meaningful change to that, we need to get to a point where we know we can move forward and operate.”
The closure has impacted staff at all levels across the board, not just those that work directly in the park.
Lembke said he couldn’t comment on the financial impacts of the closure because the company is publicly traded but that information would be shared at quarterly earnings reports.
In the meantime, the company is continuing to work with state and local officials to try and come up with a compromise with the governor’s office, Lembke said.
“Busch Gardens is a critical part of this community and we appreciate that and we want to do what’s best for all involved in the safest way possible,” he said. “And I think our position and collaboration will help us get to our goal.”
James City County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jim Icenhour on Tuesday said the decision to reopen Busch Gardens at a higher capacity is up to Northam and the best thing they can do is continue working with their state legislators.
“I think what’s frustrating for a lot of us, there is not a significant difference between us and Virginia Beach,” Icenhour said.
He said he felt Busch Gardens’ plan to reopen was well thought out and allowing 5,000 to 6,000 people would still be low capacity for the park.
He added the Board of Supervisors will probably discuss Busch Gardens at their next meeting on July 14.
WYDaily multimedia reporter Julia Marsigliano contributed to this report.
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