Movie theater trade group establishes coronavirus protocols for reopening

As movie theaters come back to life across the country, the National Association of Theater Owners is helping to take the guess work out of safe operating practices in the era of COVID-19.

The trade organization is announcing a set of health and safety protocols Friday based on research and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the Occupational Safety and Heath Administration. Over 300 companies representing more than 2,600 theater locations in the U.S. have already signed on to the CinemaSafe program.

After a brief green light to reopen from Sacramento, California theaters on July 13 were ordered to close again — for those that had moved forward with welcoming back patrons — because of rising viral metrics in a number of counties.

“In this new pandemic world, moviegoers need to know that there is a consistent, science and experience-based set of health and safety protocols in place no matter what theater they visit,” said John Fithian, the association’s president and CEO, in a statement. “This unprecedented industry-wide effort is a promise designed to meet that need.”

The guidelines outline comprehensive mask policies, which are required for employees and patrons with a few exceptions for children under 2 years old and when consuming concessions — but only when approved by state and local health authorities. The rules state that masks should also be provided to employees who don’t have them.

They also sketch out recommendations for reduced capacity screenings, air filtration optimization, cashless concessions, mobile ticketing, enhanced cleaning policies and employee health training about hand hygiene and the signs and symptoms of COVID-19.

The association has been working for months to develop the rules in consultation with epidemiologists and industry experts. The organization’s executive board includes the leaders of the major exhibition chains, like AMC Entertainment, Cinemark and Cineworld/Regal.

Most indoor movie theaters shuttered in mid-March to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. This week, the major theater chains in the U.S. have started to slowly reopen locations. Although many have said they are complying with local mandates and generally accepted best practices, there was not until now a set of industry-wide guidelines. This lack of oversight led to situations like the mask backlash that resulted in all the major exhibitors reversing course to require face coverings.

The CinemaSafe protocols are voluntary. Companies complying with the guidelines can display a CinemaSafe badge on their websites and, eventually, at their locations so patrons are aware.

Dr. David F. Goldsmith, an occupational and environmental epidemiologist at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, reviewed the CinemaSafe guidelines.

“These protocols, and the way they were developed, demonstrate a serious, comprehensive effort by movie theater owners to examine every aspect of their operations, identify potential risks, and reduce them,” Goldsmith said.

Dr. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious disease specialist and director of the Travel Health Clinic at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, said that the protocols address, “Two of the three general concepts that factor into activity risk: distance, dose and duration.”

Sanchez said that duration can’t be controlled but noted that movie runtimes are similar to that of a domestic flight or time spent at a restaurant.

“While every activity outside the home carries risks, these additional measures can help to mitigate them,” she added.

The lights started slowing coming back on in theaters nationwide Thursday with AMC Theaters, the country’s largest chain, leading the charge.

AMC opened some 113 locations across the U.S., advertising retro pricing and retro screenings to entice audiences back to the movies. Regal, the second largest exhibitor, is following suit Friday. It’s been a long-time coming for the beleaguered businesses, which had several false starts due to coronavirus spikes.

Even without a new movie in the bunch, within 30 minutes, 17 of the 20 showtimes had sold out and all that remained were a few tickets for “The Goonies,” “Jumanji: The Next Level” and the Christian film “I Still Believe.” Tickets for “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Back to the Future” had already been gone for days.

A sellout, however, isn’t exactly what it used to be. AMC is only selling to 30% capacity, which in this location meant about 25 people per screen. Each film only gets two screenings a day to give employees ample time to clean. And showtimes are also being staggered to help prevent too many people from congregating in the lobby.

New movies are soon to follow, though, which the theaters are counting on for survival. Disney’s much-delayed “New Mutants” will debut on Aug. 28 and Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” will follow soon after, with some screenings as early as Aug. 31.

There was a bit of a learning curve for some patrons when it came to the new safety and social distancing protocols. Some wandered in with masks down by their chins (an employee quickly approached them to ask that they cover their faces). Others were surprised that concessions were cash only.

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