SeaWorld San Antonio moved quickly to ease policies related to COVID-19 after federal health officials said people who are fully vaccinated could ditch face masks in most places indoors or outdoors.
The park over the weekend eliminated mask requirements for vaccinated guests and dropped social distancing rules on rides, at shows and in restaurants. The new policies are a dramatic reversal of rules put in place when the theme park reopened in late June 2020 after a three-month shutdown.
The changes surprised Trevor and Jill Chamberlain, who visited the park Sunday. The tourists from Golden, Colo., said they liked the more relaxed policy — to a point.
When they found themselves packed together with several thousand spectators at “Orca Encounter,” SeaWorld San Antonio’s flagship show, they put on their masks.
“When you’re in those kinds of close quarters, you need to be careful,” Jill Chamberlain said.
This past weekend also saw SeaWorld filling every seat on roller coasters and other rides for the first time in more than a year.
Despite relaxation of the park’s rules, about 20 percent of the park’s guests still wore masks Sunday.
SeaWorld Entertainment, which put the changes into effect simultaneously at SeaWorld Orlando and most other company-owned theme parks, said it would not require verification that guests are vaccinated, relying instead on an honor system.
“We will not require proof of vaccine, but ask our guests respectfully comply with our revised policy,” SeaWorld spokesman Chuck Cureau said in a statement issued after 11 p.m. Friday. Park employees will be required to continue wearing masks.
Visitors view stingrays in the Aquatica area as SeaWorld San Antonio entertains a limited amount of guests July 31, 2020.
Tom Reel /Staff photographer
A day earlier, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated people can take part in most indoor and outdoor activities without a mask or social distancing, except where required by state or local rules, including business and workplace guidance.
The CDC has not changed rules that masks must be worn on airplanes.
SeaWorld’s new policy also applies to its Busch Gardens parks in Tampa, Fla., and Williamsburg, Va. It does not apply to SeaWorld San Diego, where masks and social distancing are required by state and local rules.
SeaWorld’s rules relaxation goes beyond what Walt Disney World and the Universal Orlando Resort announced Friday. At those parks, mask requirements ended only for visitors in outdoor common areas.
San Antonio’s other theme park, Six Flags Fiesta Texas, still requires that masks be worn everywhere in the park, except while eating or drinking. Six Flags also is separating parties on rides and at shows, something SeaWorld no longer does.
It was unclear if Six Flags Fiesta Texas would be changing its policy in the near future.
“We are evaluating the newest CDC recommendations and will make updates as needed with the health and safety of our guests and team members top of mind,” Six Flags Fiesta Texas President Jeffrey Siebert said in a statement.
The conflicting mask policies between SeaWorld San Antonio and Six Flags Fiesta Texas led to confusion for the Chamberlains. While visiting Six Flags a day earlier, the middle-aged couple said, they were reminded several times by employees that face coverings were required.
“They were very strict,” Trevor Chamberlain said.
Visitors moving through the park walk by signs advising of efforts to enforce pandemic safety rules in July. SeaWorld has eased mask and social distancing rules in line with new CDC guidance issued last week.
Tom Reel /Staff photographer
Their differing experience reflects the confusing transition period occurring in society in general as COVID-19 rules are relaxed in some places and not in others, said theme park consultant Dennis Speigel.
“It’s just a general sense of confusion,” he said.
Speigel said he expects that theme parks will develop more uniform rules in coming weeks.
“Management will see what works and what doesn’t and adjust the requirements to the needs of theme park guests,” he predicted.
SeaWorld’s approach is easier to manage because employees don’t have to focus on enforcing social distancing or mask rules, said Martin Lewison, associate professor of business management at Farmingdale State College in New York and an expert on theme parks.
“They don’t have to worry about arguments with guests over mask-wearing,” he said.
On Sunday at SeaWorld, families with children packed the first five rows of the Sea Star Theater to watch a Sesame Street show even though most of the other seats in the 600-seat theater were empty. Prior to this weekend, theater workers had separated those attending the show.
At the end of the show, SeaWorld workers also put in place a new exit procedure. Guests were forced to leave through a crowded indoor gift shop. The old COVID-19 procedure allowed guests to go directly outdoors but has been scrapped.
Theme parks put gift shops at the end of attractions to increase visitor spending.
New signs at the entrances to SeaWorld say the company cannot guarantee that guests would not be exposed to COVID-19, and they don’t spell out that the park still requires masks for nonvaccinated guests.
Instead, the signs state that the CDC recommends that people are fully vaccinated and that per the federal agency, “vaccines are fully effective at protecting people from severe COVID-19.”
The signs goes on to say that the CDC recommends “prevention measures” for unvaccinated people and gives visitors the CDC website address for more information.
Lewison said SeaWorld is being vague on purpose as it tries to build back attendance devastated by COVID-19. It does not want to alienate unvaccinated persons who decide to go to a theme park.