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Movie Theaters Tout COVID-19 Safety Protocols and Making Guests Feel Safe

closed movie theater marquee cascade idaho
Chris Willman/ Variety

As cinemas welcome back audiences this summer, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) is introducing a set of health protocols that it claims will keep customers safe from COVID-19.

Dubbed “CinemaSafe,” the standards include asking patrons to social distance and wear masks, encouraging the purchase of tickets online and making hand sanitizer more readily available. They also call for frequent cleanings of theaters, as well as urge cinemas to install improved HVAC systems, while pushing contact-free concessions. Employees are being encouraged to wash their hands repeatedly throughout a shift and will be trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of COVID-19. The protocols are voluntary. They were developed by NATO, the lobbying arm of the exhibition industry, and rely on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

NATO announced the new health standards at a press conference that included exhibition industry chiefs such as AMC head Adam Aron and IMAX Entertainment head Megan Colligan, as well as health experts such as Dr. David F. Goldsmith, an occupational and environmental epidemiologist at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, and Dr. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious disease specialist and director of the Travel Health Clinic at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. The medical professionals emphasized that it’s impossible to ensure that consumers will be entirely safe from coronavirus.

“There’s no activity outside the home that has no risk,” said Sanchez. However, she noted that keeping people six feet apart and encouraging them to wear masks will help reduce transmission of the virus.

However, exhibitors stressed the importance of making sure audiences feel safe going back to the movies when cinemas are able to resume business.

“From the day we shut down in March, the single biggest and most important issue was to restore consumer confidence,” Aron said.

Aron sparked controversy in June when he said that masks would be “strongly enforced,” but not required at AMC locations. After intense pushback on social media, the company reversed course and will require guests to wear masks. On Friday, Aron called wearing masks something “near and dear to my heart.”

“Our customers told us loudly that strongly enforcing was not enough,” Aron said, noting they received over 50,000 comments on social media in protest. “We are going to listen to our customers and require masks.”

Other movie theater owners are following suit with mask mandates. Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi said his chain is offering masks for free if audience members don’t have one. They have had 15 theaters reopen since June and noticed that there has been very little pushback about wearing masks. In the event that a guest doesn’t comply, Cinemark is offering a refund.

“I think the word is out that this is the policy,” he said. “The consumer understands the situation. If they’re going into a public retail environment, masks are a requirement.”

John Fithian, head of NATO, said the measures are being taken to make sure that moviegoers can “return to their favorite pastime with confidence.”

The theater business has been largely shuttered since March when coronavirus began spreading across the globe. Cinemas have started to slowly resume business, and several notable Hollywood releases such as “Unhinged,” “Tenet” and “The New Mutants” will hit theaters in the coming weeks.

Sanchez said the public should “very respectfully speak up” if they see audience members or employees who are failing to embrace those precautions.

“Honor the people around you and honor the policies set in place,” she said.

Goldsmith added that “there are no findings that show a link between going to see a movie and contracting COVID-19.” The health experts added that attending a movie may be less risky than going to a bar or restaurant because audiences aren’t talking while they are watching the movie.

Despite the dearth of cinemas that have reopened in the U.S., Colligan said she is encouraged by overseas markets. She pointed to the better-than-expected debut for “Peninsula,” a sequel to zombie action thriller “Train to Busan.” The Korean film has generated over $30 million internationally to date.

“The results are fairly staggering,” Colligan said.

In a different environment, one before the pandemic hit, cinema chains see themselves as fierce rivals in the fight for customers. But given prolonged cinema closures and the uncertainty over the movie business, they showed a sense of camaraderie in returning to multiplexes at any scale.

“In normal times, I would say AMC popcorn is better than Cinemark popcorn,” Aron said. “But right now I’ll say, ‘I’ll be happy if people go to Regal or Cinemark or AMC.'”