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It’s going to be phase 3, but still foggy for Busch Gardens Williamsburg

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Busch Gardens, located in the lower county of James City, was recently honored by the National Amusement Park Historical Association for the 29th consecutive year.  (WYDaily / courtesy Busch Gardens)
Busch Gardens Williamsburg. (WYDaily / courtesy Busch Gardens)

Governor Ralph Northam officially announced plans to reopen Phase 3 on July 1, but some local leaders are unhappy with what this means for Busch Gardens.

Under Phase 3 guidelines, entertainment venues, such as Busch Gardens, would only be allowed to operate with a limit of 1,000 people.

Kevin Lembke, president of Busch Gardens, expressed disappointment Tuesday during a working session of the James City County Supervisory Board on Busch Gardens being put in a category with other entertainment.

We also continue to be confused by the entertainment business groups with which we are associated in counseling, he said. Our parks are largely outdoor facilities, spread over hundreds of acres, but we continue to be grouped with businesses … like bowling alleys and ice rinks.

Lembke said Virginia is the only state that does not have specific guidelines for theme parks.

Busch Gardens developed its own potential reopening plan which was presented to the board and other local officials on Tuesday.

Lembke said the park would implement various procedures to try to reach a capacity of at least 5,000 to 7,000 guests. As a rule, the capacity of the parks is around 24,000 people.

One of the key elements in determining this minimum number was to examine the social distance on the common gateways. This number allows a distance of 36 square feet between guests on the aisles. Lembke said the equation ignores customers in stores or at attractions, so the distance could be greater.

The park will also implement a number of safety procedures, such as social distance markings and 300 new disinfection stations, to protect customers and employees.

If the park were to get permission to reopen at higher capacity, Lembke said it would take at least two to three weeks to retrain staff and ensure that enough people were available to operate the park.

But Lembke and other local officials have noted that Northam boards have crippled the economic vitality of the parks without considering other possibilities for increasing capacity.

The thousand people [limit] I can understand for other places, but you can put a thousand people alone in your bathrooms, said supervisor Michael Hipple.

Other elected officials also expressed concern about the guidelines.

I know quite a bit about tourism and visitor numbers to the Historic Triangle over the years, said Republican state senator Tommy Norment. It is absolutely imperative for the economy of the Historic Triangle that we open Busch Gardens and open it with substantial participation … If we do not … the economy of the Historic Triangle will bleed and there will be many victims.

Supervisor Ruth Larson noted that 43% of visitors to the Historic Triangle come to visit Busch Gardens.

Larson, along with other board members, expressed frustration with the more lax regulations imposed on Virginia Beach to promote tourism. Larson said she thought it was not fair to allow Virginia Beach to open more than the Historic Triangle, particularly because she does not believe there is any real social distancing.

It’s irritating, said Hipple. Maybe we should put more sand in Busch Gardens and then we can do whatever we want.

Lembke said he has had discussions with other theme parks across the country that have received largely positive feedback on their security efforts and believes the same could be done at Busch Gardens if the regulations were changed.

State Delegate Mike Mullin (District D-93) said he had had discussions with the Northam office to try to see if a change could be made to specifically consider Busch Gardens.

I think we realize that the business of the peninsula is tourism, said Mullin. It’s the backbone on which we build the rest of the economy … I [have] tired of the way the phases are organized, it makes no sense to bring together large parts of the entertainment industry.

Democratic State Senator Monty Mason also said he would call on the governor’s office to provide more specific guidelines for the theme parks.

The chairman of the board of supervisors, Jim Icenhour, said that during the next board meeting in three weeks, local officials should work to see if these calls would heed the results and an interim meeting could be scheduled if necessary.

Based on this advice… planned to be closed well in July and possibly later, said Lembke. This represents a risk for the local economy.


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