All Movie Theaters Have New Safety Guidelines, but They Vary Widely by State

There's no central guidance on how theaters should apply safety measures, though some owners are game even to stop selling food and drink.
People wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus watch the film "Dolittle" at a movie theater in Beijing, Friday, July 24, 2020. Beijing partially reopened movie theaters Friday as the threat from the coronavirus continues to recede in China’s capital. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
A reopened movie theater in Beijing is a glimpse into what moviegoing will be like when cinemas reopen in the U.S.

“Unhinged,” “Words on Bathroom Walls,” and a reissue of “Inception” are scheduled for wide release August 21, and theaters are desperate to make that reopening date in preparation for “Tenet” on September 4. In New Jersey, lawyers for the National Association of Theater Owners said their clients are open to not selling concessions if that’s what it takes to overturn the state’s ban on indoor cinemas. If New Jersey agrees to those terms, it would be just one major variance among so many: Across the country, all states and theaters have safety guidelines, but almost none of them are the same.

The pandemic has no regard for politics or location, but theaters define their safety terms differently in every state; sometimes, they vary by city. In Alaska, no walk-ins are allowed. In Alabama, theater capacity is capped at 50 percent; in Arkansas, it’s 66 percent; and in Colorado it’s a maximum of 100 per auditorium. Idaho requires utilizing alternate rows, in addition to six-foot social distancing; Iowa allows 100 percent capacity within the context of six-foot distancing.

“Tenet”Warner Bros.

At this writing, 36 states allow indoor theaters everywhere. Seven states have some theaters open, by region. All of Arizona reopens August 10. Five states (California, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York, plus D.C.) have no reopening plans yet, while North Carolina just announced that its date will be September 11, eight days after the opening of “Tenet.”

All of these standards — and many, many more — are available in a frequently updated NATO spreadsheet that breaks down the requirements across the United States, with links to documentation for timelines, state guidelines, theater guidelines and more. And of course, all is subject to change.

Reviewing the theaters’ guidelines as well as a current list of state safety requirements and/or recommendations suggests that most theater chains exceed state requirements for face masks and social distancing. Beyond that, the standards vary.


Many individual states cite ushers monitoring auditoriums, staggered showtimes, and a ban on self-service concessions. And according to many states’ standards, masks would be required in public areas such as the lobby. Some theaters ask that patrons wear masks at all times, including the auditoriums, but few if any require it.

Auditorium capacity

A handful of states, including Georgia and Ohio, instill no capacity limits beyond what’s necessary to maintain a six-foot distance between patrons. In other states, the limits vary greatly: Four states cite 25 percent, two require 30 percent, one has 33 percent, another is 40 percent, two are 60 percent, one is 65 percent, and two are 66 percent. The most common are 50 percent, or no capacity specifics; these standards belong to 16 states each. (California, when it briefly allowed reopening, capped it at 25 percent or 50 people.) Two states list a 100-person maximum per auditorium; three have it at 50.

Social distancing

All states refer to the social-distancing standard of six feet apart, but auditorium details can vary even within a state. These include two seats between patrons or groups, no seating in the three seats nearest the aisle, utilizing every other row, or some combination thereof. In Colorado, 16 counties applied for variances to state guidelines. Most were approved, but could be rescinded if COVID-19 cases significantly increase in the area.

Face masks

Individual states generally set mask requirements, but few states or theaters suggest that masks are required while sitting in an auditorium that requires distanced seating.

Unlike AMC Theatres, which allows patrons to remove masks inside the auditorium, Cinemark requires that face masks be worn except when eating and drinking. Reinforcing that, however, is a separate matter. We’ve seen the dramatic, sometimes violent, confrontations that can occur when workers try to enforce mask wearing on those who would rather not. In theaters, that would be multiplied by the aggravation of surrounding patrons. Should staff even be put in that position? (Cinemark did not reply to a request for comment.)

In the U.K., masks inside theaters at all times are a national standard. That’s something the U.S. lacks for COVID-19 prevention across the board, and this does exhibitors no favors. Clearly, the theaters make real efforts to meet or exceed guidelines and want to demonstrate that to the public. However, the varied specifics between states, counties, cities, and theater chains are endless, and that friction is enough to seed anxiety and doubt in these already-uncertain times.

In terms of slowing COVID-19 transmission, the safest route is if everyone closed their doors and stayed home. Of course, that’s not the safest course for our lives; survival requires we take precautions and engage with the world as needed. The same holds true for businesses, including movie theaters that are in dire economic straits and face serious existential threats. Remaining closed starves them of revenue while accelerating studios’ migration to streaming platforms. By the time that true safety arrived, theaters would be irrelevant.

The major theater chains are publicly traded companies that employ thousands. Those that miss out on “Tenet” and other titles could see stockholder lawsuits and challenges to corporate boards as well as increased suffering by the people who create the often-cited, much-beloved theatrical experience.

RegalRegal Cinemas

Theaters play an oversized role in symbolizing normal American life, but in the larger scheme of domestic businesses they are small. Last year, film grosses (which are split with studios) and concessions revenue generated about $15 billion. In many ways it remains a mom-and-pop enterprise, with practices that vary between franchises and regions. Inconsistent safety requirements make it difficult to create a cohesive message, and the public craves clarity in very uncertain times.

It might be tough to organize and get all to agree, but proactive steps to let the public know that their goal is to show movies, with safety required over and above all, might make the public more eager to return. And if achieving that vision temporarily means no popcorn sales, so be it.

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