Reopening Theaters Too Soon Risking Health of Moviegoers, Employees, and Industry Recovery?

We’ve all seen studios, exhibitors, and even moviegoers placing their guesses when the eventual widespread reopening of theaters will happening nationwide in the United States. As a majority of theaters have closed after cases of Coronavirus exploded over the last couple of months with the American death toll inching towards 110,000 via Johns Hopkins and counting. 

There are more concrete ideas when the push for reopening could happen. 

Earlier in the week, the National Association of Theater Operators told Business Insider they expect to have 90% of theaters open by mid-July. 

The assumption is that this could allow Warner Bros. to open Christopher Nolan’s Tenet as planned on July 17th. However, a recent trailer meant to promote Tenet’s release didn’t mention a date or season, just the vague statement “Coming To Theaters”. 

The vague promotion for the first “big summer blockbuster” led many of us to consider that Warner Bros. might be delaying the release like their other films but is holding back on announcing a new date. 

There was a recent announcement that Cinemark, the third-largest theater chain in the United States would be forgoing requirements for guests to wear masks in their theaters via The Wrap. Only requiring their employees to do so and are said to be opening a handful of locations in Texas on June 19th for their “test phase”. 

The bizarre mask policy is simply puzzling given this would put not only put costumers at risk but puts their employees in harm’s way too, as it’s been pointed out by medical experts that masks only prevent the wearer from spreading droplets themselves. It has been pointed out that masks don’t completely protect from droplet exposure from others if they cough or sneeze indoors and it is even worse if guests aren’t wearing them when sitting a room amongst each other. 

High-traffic places like grocery stores (theaters will likely be selling food and drink when they reopen) are mostly requiring customers to wear masks, so it’s odd that theaters where people won’t be in-and-out but stilling in place for multiple hours with strangers they’re not taking the CDC recommendations into consideration. Hopefully, they will reconsider given the reactions I’ve seen from industry people and normal moviegoers. 

We’re indeed seeing some places in America having a decrease in new COVID cases, which is good news when we’re struggling to find tidbits given current events. Yet, the country is still open for domestic travel between states and this means plenty of asymptomatic citizens are moving about city-to-city/state-to-state then returning to their communities. Other places in the country are seeing increases. 

COVID-19 is neither under control or defeated. That seems to be an assumption made because the news coverage hasn’t been as focused on the pandemic, for obvious reasons. The protests could realistically lead to spikes alongside places that attempted to reopen or simply didn’t really put any social distancing or stay at home orders in place, to begin with. 

Having large crowds gathering so frequently over the last couple of days alone should make exhibitors nervous about reopening given that new cases could be going unreported/tested, large crowds are hardly social distancing and many people aren’t wearing masks. The assumption being that we could see spikes all over the country in the next two weeks. 

What could be worse than not reopening over the summer for the industry?

Cinemark’s push to get their locations open isn’t without cause. There some experts that are claiming AMC is on the brink of bankruptcy and it’s possible could have to be sold-off to survive. It’s a crystal clear example that the larger chains are going to be in more trouble in the long-term. 

Fears of chains going under aren’t unfounded. 

However, opening too soon or pushing forward with laissez-faire safety measures could lead to multiple outbreaks and clusters. Another true concern is that theaters could be a hot-spot for the resurgence and spread of COVID-19. 

I’m curious if that risk is worth the terrible PR of people getting sick at establishments and potentially dying. Stories like that could end up scaring people away already on-the-fence about returning to a closed space like that for a prolonged period of time. As patrons might leave to never return at all once you lose their trust.

I doubt Regal, AMC, or Cinemark want their brands to be connected to a public outbreak of Coronavirus via contact tracing or worse leading to multiple deaths. Clusters and spikes could even contribute to a second wave of the Coronavirus, going back to square one over the summer could be devastating given how much it has already cost in the way of jobs and lives. 

I think we’re all eager to get back to normality and plenty of people are ready to get back to malls/theaters even if they’re willing to accept the risk. I’m curious if they’re considering the multiple people that will come in contact with them that didn’t agree to that risk. 

Solutions? 

I know it can sound overwhelming negative to hear someone with the position it’s too soon. But I’m also bringing a couple of ideas to the table. The easiest thing to do is simply wait a little longer, potentially sometime in the fall, until things have genuinely quieted down and also beef-up safety standards just in case. 

I’ve suggested in the past bringing back the classic drive-in format and it’s actually a solid way for people to social distance than you would in a traditional indoor location. I know it sounds like a retro idea but its the best amount of separation between moviegoers. Plastic barriers and spread out seats aren’t going to mean much if droplets linger in the air, it’s more of an illusion of safety if we’re being honest. 

Plenty of theaters have existing parking lots, you just have to set up a screen, and a way to stream the audio into vehicles via an app or radio.  

Because patrons are expected to stick to their own vehicle masks don’t really factor in unless you have people not living together sharing close space in a vehicle and they’d likely be doing that regardless. The only real issue I would see with that could be restroom access and if you’d have to set up some sort of drive-thru concession stand. 

Stricter protection measures could also be another common-sense idea. Requiring masks and potentially providing them for guests (free of charge) that might find it cumbersome to get their own. 

I’m a moviegoer just like many of you, however, I will be patiently waiting until the fall/winter to see how things go with the second wave before jumping into the deep end concerning seeing a film in a traditional theater at the moment. I don’t really feel like being a guinea pig for the film industry and I get the impression others will simply wait it out as well. 

While I miss the experience I feel like I’d miss my loved ones more or putting my own health in a compromised position for something as arbitrary as a night out at the movies isn’t terribly appealing to me.

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