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New Industrywide Theater-Safety Plan Launches with Acknowledgment: ‘Going to the Movies Is Not Risk-Free’

With plans for indoor-air quality, mask-wearing, and social distancing, NATO hopes a united front will help encourage a return to theatergoing. Here are all the details, including an assessment of risk.

Concessions workers stock the bins with popcorn and other treats as the theatre opens for some of the first showings at the AMC theatre when it re-opened for the first time since shutting down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, in West Homestead, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Workers at the AMC in West Homestead, Pennsylvania stock concessions ahead of the cinema’s reopening on August 20

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Leaders from the three largest cinema circuits came together Friday to launch a new set of industry-wide health and safety protocols. With sign-on from AMC, Regal, and Cinemark — and over 300 other theater companies — the National Association of Theatre Owners’ CinemaSafe plan seeks to present a united front to make audiences feel secure about heading back to the movies.

But the fact remains: Even with the plan — which includes mask requirements, social distancing rules, reduced auditorium capacity, and other measures — movie-going during the pandemic still comes with risk.

“I think it’s important to understand that going to the movies is not risk-free,” said Dr. Joyce L. Sanchez, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, one of two doctors who spoke during Thursday’s press conference.

Sanchez, along with epidemiologist Dr. David Goldsmith, said they are unaware of any published medical studies that indicate specific instances where movie theaters have been venues for COVID-19 transmission. “I think the specific risk is yet to be quantified and time will pan out on that,” Sanchez said.

U.S. theaters are just now opening in earnest. AMC’s phased approach to reopening began Thursday, with about 400 of their 600 total domestic locations available for when “Tenet” opens September 3. Regal started reopening some of its locations Friday, while Cinemark in recent weeks started the process of opening some of its doors.

Sanchez and Goldsmith pointed to some encouraging facts: At restaurants, which have been open for months in some areas, people routinely eat and talk without masks on for extended periods. Under the NATO guidelines, theater patrons may remove their masks only while eating or drinking, and they (hopefully!) will not be talking or moving around during the movie.

“Theaters are operating at reduced capacity of 30 to 50 percent to try to make that distancing possible. These (infectious) droplet-filled particles can travel up to 16 feet from the source. Theaters are requiring moviegoers and staff to wear masks to limit the spread of those particles, because study after study has shown the efficacy by which certain masks reduce that distance of droplets traveled — that is still believed to be the primary mode of viral transmission,” Sanchez said.

Her advice to theatergoers: Follow the cinema’s guidelines, respect fellow audience members, and limit eating and drinking. The result is that there is a “high probability” that theater-going presents no greater risk than dining at a restaurant, she said.

As of Thursday, over 300 companies, which together own 2,600 U.S. cinemas — or around 3/4 of the country’s total — have signed on to the voluntary NATO guidelines, which cover the high-notes of practices recommended by the CDC, OSHA, the WHO, and disease experts. IndieWire noted at least 11 chains with 100 or more screens that are not currently listed as signatories of the NATO rules; but the group’s leaders say more are expected to sign on. Additionally, the absence of certain chains does not mean they are without their own health and safety plans.

The rules require employees and patrons to wear masks, patrons to follow social distancing, and theaters to operate at reduced capacity and with enhanced cleaning protocols. The guidelines stipulate that HVAC systems be in working order and ventilation be increased whenever possible. Concessions and ticketing should be modified where possible to limit contact between patrons and staff. Employees should be trained on hand-washing and other health practices, while hand sanitizers should be placed liberally throughout buildings.

The full list of guidelines and participating theaters can be accessed here.

Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi reflected on how it’s been since opening 60 locations across the country so far. He said that issues patrons refusing to wear masks have been “very, very small or non-existent.”

“The vast majority of the people are showing up with their mask. We have very good signage on our website, on our app, and at the door, that they’re required. All of our employees, of course, are wearing them,” he said. “For the very few that show up with don’t have them, we’re offering a mask for free. … It has been very, very little pushback on it. And for the isolated case or two that we’ve had, we’ve offered a refund and explained the situation.”

AMC CEO Adam Aron said to him, it’s clear that customers want mask requirements. He recalled the backlash his company faced when its initial reopening plan, announced earlier this summer, only “encouraged” guests to wear masks outside of areas where they’re required to do so.

“That announcement was made at 6 o’clock, I think, on a Thursday evening. By 7 o’clock on Thursday evening, out customers told us loudly that was not enough. We had something like 60,000 social media contacts in the first few hours, we instantly knew that just strongly encouraging mask-wearing is not enough,” he said. “So it’s easy to enforce this policy because this is what movie-goers want.”

While the backlash over that policy may have been overwhelming, not all Americans are on board with mask-wearing. Just last week, a man punched a Pennsylvania teenage theme park worker in the face, shattering his jaw, after the worker told the man he needed to wear a mask, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

That was just the latest instance of someone turning violent in response to a mask requirement. And while not every rule-breaker will turn to violence, the occurrence of such episodes suggests that under the cover of a darkened theater, audience members may be tempted to remove their face coverings for an extended period. It’s a reality that puts pressure on companies, including theater operators, to protect the health and safety of their workers and employees alike, through strictly and safely enforced mask policies.

While peoples’ comfort in dining out during the pandemic may translate to theater-going, there is one key difference between the two activities. Many restaurants have drastically increased their outdoor seating options and limited the number of people sitting in enclosed spaces, while theaters are enclosed spaces by design. Enter indoor ventilation, which, along with mask-wearing, is seen by many experts as a key element in curbing virus transmission indoors.

Aron said Harvard University public health experts tapped by AMC advised the company in May to “dramatically step up our HVAC systems.” That includes increasing the mix of fresh air pumped out by vents and installing MERV 13 air filters, which Aron described as providing quadruple the normal level of filtration.

NATO President and CEO John Fithian called out New York governor Andrew Cuomo for recently suggesting that movie theaters operate with single HVAC systems, recycling and mixing air between auditoriums. That’s untrue, Fithian said. “We are helping correct him on the facts,” he said. “Often, a six-plex will have eight different air conditioning systems, so the idea that COVID would flow from one auditorium to the next is just not based on the facts.”

Cuomo earlier this week announced movie theaters in his state would remain indefinitely closed, which means the country’s two largest markets of New York City and Los Angeles will not be a part of this current grand wave of theater reopening.

Tom Brueggemann contributed reporting.

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