As movie theater chains such as Regal and AMC open their doors for the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the industry is embracing new safety protocols. The hope is that customers will return in force even amid the ongoing pandemic.
John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, told Cheddar that the trade group has been surveying customers since the beginning of the pandemic and keeping a close eye on how other industries handled their reopenings.
The result is a set of detailed procedures to be implemented at multiplexes across the country.
"We worked for a couple of months with top epidemiologists and our own company experts to develop what we call CinemaSafe, which is a robust set of protocols in every aspect of cinema operations to make sure that no matter where our patrons go to the cinema across the United States they know they're in a safe environment."
The association represents 300 companies and 2,600 individual theaters. With 20th Century Fox's final X-Men entry, The New Mutants, premiering August 28 and Christopher Nolan's Tenet set to hit theaters September 3, the stakes are high for an industry that was already struggling amid increased competition from direct-to-video and streaming releases.
The CinemaSafe protocols include mask requirements for both employees and patrons, social distancing within auditoriums and lobbies, mobile ticketing, and modified concession sales.
"All these protocols are expensive, but we feel that we have to invest in the safety of our patrons in order to have a strong resurgence in the movie theaters," Fithian said.
One major concern about the reopening of movie theaters, in particular, has been air filtration, given the length of time that audiences spend in a single enclosed room.
Fithian said theater chains have adapted their systems to let in more fresh air, but also made the case that auditoriums have some natural advantages when it comes to avoiding transmission as well.
"Air filtration, in particular in movie theaters, is actually easier to manage than it is in restaurants or bars or smaller enclosed spaces, and that's because we have multiple auditoriums in a multiplex," he said. "That means we have multiple air conditioning systems. We're not moving air from one auditorium to the next."
The Washington-based lobbying group based its protocols on CDC and OSHA guidelines as well as best practices from state and local regulations.
"We're thinking about a new normal. We're thinking about how people can be safer," Fithian said. "Some of these protocols will stay in place as long as there are case numbers in the pandemic, and some will go away as those case numbers disappear, but some practices will certainly continue long-term."