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Movie theaters are about to open again. They’re not doing enough

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Movie theaters are preparing to re-open right now in the midst of a global pandemic that’s spun out of control in the United States. What a terrible idea.

Two of the biggest theater chains in the U.S. will be opening (some of) their doors to customers once again before the end of August, with AMC Theatres returning on Aug. 20 and Regal Cinemas following suit the next day, on Aug. 21. Both seem to think they have this thing figured out, with nearly identical guidelines.

Some of it is good and correct. Masks are required, hand sanitizer will be everywhere, employees will be tested regularly. Both chains are limiting theater occupancy, though AMC is taking a more aggressive stance with capacity cut down to 30 percent. Regal, meanwhile, is only reducing theaters to 50 percent capacity “where required by state or county mandate.”

In other words, if you live in a state or county presided over by an unhinged anti-masker, visiting a Regal theater means you may be dealing with a packed house (though there needs to be two empty seats between each group). On the other hand, Regal is promising to increase the “fresh air intake” in theaters, meaning moviegoers won’t breathe in as much recirculated air. 

AMC’s guidelines don’t say anything about cycling fresh air into theaters, but the chain will be using MERV 13 air filters in their cooling system. Is that really a good idea though? These air filters are capable of capturing an airborne virus, but supplies are reportedly short. Are movie theaters really the best home for them when places like schools and government offices also need them?

Both sets of guidelines place extra emphasis on cleaning protocols and the efforts each chain is taking to sanitize commonly touched surfaces. Those are good and sensible precautions to be sure. Theaters are filled with commonly touched surfaces, and while we should all be careful to never touch our eyes, nose, or mouth when out in public these days, clean surfaces and an abundance of hand sanitizer stations means there’s that much more protection.

I just wish these guidelines took the full scope of COVID-19 risk into account The CDC acknowledged back in May that person-to-person spread through close contact is the primary transmission vector for the illness. There’s also increasing evidence that the six-foot social distancing standard that’s been established may not be enough to guard against airborne transmission.

Maintaining social distancing in theaters through reduced occupancy seating is smart. Selling concessions and giving moviegoers an excuse to take off their masks, on the other hand, is not.

Regal and AMC both will be opening up their concession stands on day one. Menus will be limited for… reasons(?) and drink/popcorn refills won’t be allowed. But the plain fact is that anyone will be able to walk into a theater, buy a giant tub of popcorn, and have an excuse to keep their mask off while they munch on a snack through a whole two-hour movie.

And of course, thanks to Captain Moron in the White House, you’ll get plenty of people marching into theaters and ripping off their masks as soon as trailers get started in some kind of misguided political action. When really all they’ll be doing is putting a theater full of people at risk. 

I understand that concessions are a big moneymaker for theaters. How can they not be given the criminally high prices theater chains charge? After being shut down for months especially, these companies are looking for any way to get income flowing back in. I’ve got to say, though: This ain’t it.

I look at walking into a movie theater during the height of a pandemic as an act of trust. I’m trusting the business to protect me and my fellow attendees, and the theater is trusting its customers to respect both the business and their fellow moviegoers. 

Unfortunately, the objective reality of the past six months tells us that large segments of the U.S. population give exactly zero shits about their fellow Americans. They’re too invested in an illusory culture war that’s meant to keep rich people in power, and they’ve been duped into believing incorrect things about the virus, the protection measures for said virus, and the people who are really at risk of the virus (spoiler alert: it’s literally everyone).

It’s all too clear that Regal and AMC are perfectly happy to ignore all of that. They’re subscribing instead to half-measures, some of which will certainly be effective. But half-measures don’t count for much when the the other, less protected half has the potential to create a super-spreader event.

Trust is the most valuable commodity a business can invest in at this point in the pandemic, and looking at the two theater chains’ plans to re-open leaves me with exactly zero trust that they have moviegoers’ best interests in mind. These are protective measures with a “but,” and that leaves everyone at risk.

Every bit of evidence out there on COVID-19 suggests that movie theaters are danger zones. They bring together large groups of strangers and seat them in relatively close proximity to one another in an enclosed space for at least two hours. Even without the concessions there are worries.

If Regal and AMC want to court my business – and hopefully yours as well – they’ll embrace common sense. Shut down concession stands. Station employees in theaters with the night vision goggles they use to deter bootleggers and embrace a zero tolerance policy for people who refuse to wear masks. 

Your better bet is to just skip theaters entirely until this pandemic is more under control. Drive-in theaters are springing up. Outdoor screenings have been happening too, thanks to the summertime weather. You have options. Don’t put yourself at risk. The movies will still be there when this is all over.

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