The Grinch is a popular character entertaining guests at Comcast's (CMCSA -0.64%) Universal Orlando this time of year. He could be outdone in holiday thievery by the omicron COVID-19 variant, which is sending case counts surging in the Sunshine State. With new daily case counts at their highest levels since August, Universal Orlando is bringing back the requirement that all guests and employees wear protective face coverings inside buildings and in all attraction queues and experiences. The new rules apply regardless of a person's vaccination status.
Rival Walt Disney (DIS 0.98%) already has a policy in place where everyone at Disney parks wears a mask while indoors, unless seated and actively eating. Guests also need to wear face coverings while being whisked around Disney World via its many forms of transportation. The new Universal Orlando rules kick in on Friday, heading into the busiest time of the year for central Florida's iconic theme parks.
Enjoying the ride
Comcast's tightening of the screws to keep the spread of COVID-19 in check at its theme parks isn't a surprise. Florida was one of the safest places to be in terms of case counts per capita two months ago, but the script has been flipped. Florida had nearly twice as many cases reported on Tuesday as the more populated Texas and California. Only the state of New York is faring worse in terms of total COVID-19 infections this week.
The good news -- and this does matter -- is that hospitalizations and projected deaths are substantially lower than during the summertime surge. Omicron has proven to be highly contagious even among the vaccinated, but casualties so far have clocked in at refreshingly low rates.
One can argue that if omicron is a tamer variant, Comcast and Disney may be going to extremes with their mask requirements, but they can't afford to take chances. We still don't know how this will play out. We have no idea what the long-term ramifications will be for those who are coming down with the omicron variant of COVID-19.
The timing isn't ideal. This week and next week make up the busiest two-week block of activity for Florida's theme-park industry. With schools out, and parks decked out in signature holiday swag, visiting the parks is a traditional rite for many consumers. The leading theme parks and regional amusement parks saw their stocks take a hit late last month when the initial news of omicron cases washing ashore spooked the market.
Folks will still be coming to Comcast's Universal Orlando resort even after the mask requirements go into effect on Christmas Eve. The escapism and thrills of theme parks were always in fashion before the pandemic, but after holding back through most of the past two years, many visitors long to get back to normal. Masks won't make a coaster ride any less fun. Science will trump comfort. Comcast and Disney will continue to be tastemakers among leisure stocks.
The omicron Grinch is a mean one, but a little inconvenience is a small price to pay to keep the parks open.