“RoboCosmetologist” is how Serena James says she feels in a mask and face shield as she resumes work at Disney World amid Florida’s COVID-19 explosion.
The official reopening is not until Saturday, but the 47-year-old hair and makeup stylist has been back on the job since last week. And where RoboCop of the movies is impervious to bullets, James continues to feel vulnerable to the virus despite Disney’s extensive safety measures.
With its mandatory masking, ubiquitous hand sanitizer, and plexiglass partitions everywhere, Disney World now looks as if it had been renamed “Dr. Fauci’s Neighborhood.”
But there remains at least one major gap in the precautions that affects James and others at the theatrical department.
Disney inexplicably refuses to provide regular COVID-19 testing for the actors. Even though, as James notes, “They have to be out of a mask to do their job.”
They also have to be out of a mask when James does their hair and makeup. That included the participants in a pre-opening photo shoot where she worked. The proximity added new meaning to an old expression.
“I’m so in your face,” James told The Daily Beast. “I’m in their face just as they are in mine. I don’t know how you get closer to somebody.”
The risk is heightened because James cannot do hair properly while wearing gloves.
“When we do your hair, it’s by feel,” she explained. “When it comes to styling, I got to feel it.”
Other complications include a tendency of the masks to fog up. She figures she and her co-workers will come up with a remedy for that and whatever other difficulties the personal protective gear and the pandemic may present.
“Every day is a new day to figure stuff out,” she said.
She allowed that she would feel much better if she and the actors were regularly tested.
“I want to be just as safe for them as they are for me,” she noted.
She is not sure even the imagineers of the Magic Kingdom can fully address one problem that seems inherent to Disney World’s operations.
“Even if you reduce the number of people, the nature of the business is entertainment, which is a crowd,” James said. “The CDC says to stay out of a crowd.”
She cannot shake a feeling that the reopening is too early no matter how many precautions Disney is taking.
“Disney is trying their best to keep us safe,” she said. “I’m just leery.”
She is not reassured by Florida’s daily COVID counts, which came in at 9,989 new cases on Wednesday.
“The numbers are extremely troubling,” she said. “I just don’t think we’re ready yet. I just don’t think this is a good idea. I’m afraid for myself and many of my fellow cast members.”
She added, “It’s nerve-wracking. I have to look at everybody like they have the disease, just like they have to look at me.”
She then said with a sigh, “It is what it is.”
She understands that what it is also includes the necessity to go back to work at some point. She struggled on her stimulus check and state unemployment benefits through the four months the complex was closed. She sought to maintain her mental as well as physical health by walking, walking, walking. She discovered one benefit of forced idleness was an absence of distractions. She joined much the rest of the country in focusing on the full implications of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“In all the stillness we had, a lot of people got the chance to really see,” she said. “In that stillness you had nothing else to do but watch and pay attention.”
She formulated a new maxim: “In stillness is truth.”
Of course that did not apply to many of our political leaders. President Trump’s false statements during his push to reopen the country added to the stress James is feeling while resuming work.
“I cannot float any more of his ignorance in my head,” she said. “I cannot take it.”
Although she is on the executive board of Local 361 of the International Association of Technical Stage Employees, James was not alerted by Disney of its plans to reopen. She and her fellow workers learned the same way as the general public.
“We actually watched it on the news,” she said.
James was not reassured when the state’s Trump-abiding-and-abetting governor, Rick DeSantis, told reporters, “Disney, I have no doubt, is going to be a safe environment.”
She was confronted by a dilemma that many Americans now confront. She was tired of being idle and increasingly worried about money, but she was not weary of being healthy and alive.
“On one breath, I was ready to go back to work,” she said. “On the other breath, I’m a little afraid I was coming back too soon.”
She added, “I do understand the position the company’s in. We’re all put in the same position. I still don’t think it’s a good idea.”
But last week, she set her misgivings aside. She and her fellow workers were brought in on a staggered schedule.
“So we are not not all bum-rushing the door at the same time,” she said.
That initial precaution was followed by training in new safety procedures. She had been working there for 24 years but suddenly had much to learn.
“It’s almost like the first day,” she said.
She is unsure how many actors she will be working with.
“Before COVID, it was person after person after person,” she said. “Now we don’t know yet. They’re still trying to figure it out.”
She also does not know how many patrons Disney figures it can admit and still maintain what it considers adequate social distancing.
Disney seems to have no shortage of people ready to take the risk. A lifelong Disney fan named Scott Kumka was at the complex when it closed in March, having made another attempt to complete all four dozen rides in a single day. He had succeeded on three prior occasions, but fell short that day, ending with the Toy Story Slinky Dog ride. Disney workers stood and waved goodbye to him and the other last guests.
In June, Kumka caught COVID either at his job at a pharmacy back home in Palm Beach County or from his roommate, who works at a call center. He recovered just as Disney World was preparing to reopen on Saturday, July 11.
That also happens to be Kumka’s 42nd birthday, and he figured the reopening would be the perfect way to celebrate. He went online at 6:45 a.m. on the day tickets went on sale. He discovered the virtual box office had opened at 6 a.m. rather than the usual 7 a.m. The tickets for the big day were already sold out.
“I wasn’t really surprised,” Kumka said.
He figures he would have been ready to take the risk even if he did not have possibly protective antibodies from his COVID bout. He tried for the following weekend, but that was also sold out. He works during the week.
Kumka is sure to get there eventually, along with thousands of others, unless Disney World follows the precedent of churches that have experienced outbreaks despite taking the recommended precautions and shuts back down.
Along with any people who get sick, those who will be hurt if the Disney experiment fails include not just the shareholders and Florida’s governor, but also Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, who voiced support for the reopening. He is the husband of U.S. Rep. Val Demings, who is often mentioned as a possible pick to be Joe Biden’s running mate.
The liability waiver for those entering Disney World would be familiar to anyone who attended the Trump rally in Tulsa last month.
“By entering Walt Disney World, you voluntarily assume all risks related to COVID-19,” reads a notice on the new Magic Kingdom Guidemap.
But just as the Trump waiver may have been invalidated when staffers removed social distancing stickers from seats in the Tulsa arena, the Disney equivalent may be left open to challenge as a result of the company’s refusal to provide COVID tests for actors. Never mind that the actors cannot wear masks and that they engage in such droplet-producing activities as singing and dancing. Their union continues to press Disney to reconsider.
“They’ve said no,” a spokesman for Actor’s Equity told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
The spokesman declined to guess why Disney was taking this position.
“You’ll have to ask Disney,” he said.
Disney did not respond to a request for comment. Actors who wish to be tested will have to do so on their own, which presently often involves waiting in line for hours. You then have to wait as long as 14 days for the result. What is a Cinderella or a Lion King to do?
Meanwhile, Serena the RoboCosmetologist will be performing her nerve-wracking duties with maskless, untested actors while those around her are obsessively cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. She and her fellow workers will continue looking at each other as possible carriers and hoping that is only a precaution.
“If we’re trying to play it safe, we all have to act like that,” she said. “That’s what is happening.”
She will welcome the end of each shift.
“After wearing a mask all day, I’m glad to be in my car,” she said “It’s a long day.”