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The smell of freshly popped popcorn fills your nose as you lean back into the use-to-be-soft, now-scratchy, red velour seats. The recessed ceiling lights dim, then completely darken as you anxiously wait through ten minutes of trailers. Finally, the main attraction: this summer’s blockbuster Hollywood hit movie.

Ahhh, the movies are the best. Errr, they used to be, right? These days, very few locations offer the escape from reality experienced at movie theaters. 

Long gone are the days of rubbing elbows and laughing with friends and families at your local theater. Since the COVID-19 crisis hit stateside, cinemas across the country have turned off the popcorn machine and closed their doors, with an improvement in ticket sales highly unlikely. Big box theaters like Regal and AMC put viewings on hold while smaller, family-owned and operated theaters are at risk of closing down permanently. Already competing with streaming services for viewership and box office sales, movie theaters are not an ideal endeavor for any entrepreneur right now. Some issues owners across the industry are facing include:

  • Low ticket sales
  • Inability to access new or current films
  • Hollywood filming has been put on hold for many upcoming projects
  • Inability to pay workers
  • Workers don’t want to come in and put their households at risk of illness
  • Necessary updating of HVAC systems in theaters
  • Costly health and safety updates

Early on, it was thought that the theater was a hotbed for virus contamination. Sitting in an enclosed room with strangers under constantly re-filtering air, it’s easy to understand how people might think movie theaters would be unsafe.

Although there is always a risk of catching a common cold or flu when you leave your house, movie theaters are probably not the culprit. Sitting stationary in a socially distanced theater might not be as risky as initially thought. With proper sanitization, stringent social distancing measures, lowered theater capacities, and protective equipment like affordable plexiglass sneeze guards, movie theaters might be able to begin beckoning back big movie buffs.

Tips for Social Distancing in Theaters

At the beginning of the quarantine period, you’d be hard-pressed to find an open movie theater. Now, many towns and cities across the country are slowly rolling out new phases of reopening efforts.

According to recent studies and statements from experts at Johns Hopkins and UC Davis Health, movie theaters aren’t as dangerous as people initially thought as far as obtaining an illness is concerned. With proper social distancing efforts and increased sanitization of spaces in the theater, there is a chance for these relics of the past to make a comeback. Let’s look at some easy to implement (and follow) social distancing strategies that movie theaters can enforce when reopening their doors:

1. Wear a Mask

Since the 2020 pandemic, many public entities are urging people to continue wearing masks when they feel sick. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides guidelines on how to wear a mask properly and outlines the benefits of doing so in public. This simple, easy-to-wear personal protective equipment keeps both the person wearing the mask and those around them from coming in contact with bodily fluids like mucus or saliva. Everyone who enters any establishment should be wearing a mask. Many states have even mandated the use of protective face coverings. 

Make sure all movie-goers maintain their mask through the duration of the film and while entering or exiting the theater and shared spaces. Masks will block the spray of any saliva droplets when people laugh during a comedy or gasp at the latest slasher flick.

2. Lower Theater Capacities

Another excellent way to enforce social distancing within your movie theater is by lowering theater capacities for each showering. States across America are allowing theaters to reopen with lower ticket amounts for each show. Some examples include:

  • California: Open at 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is less
  • Texas: Open at 25-50% capacity depending on location
  • Florida: Open at 50% capacity
  • Minnesota: Open at 25% capacity
  • Wisconsin: Open at 40-50% capacity

3. Spaced Out Seating

It’s impossible to remain socially distanced when seating arrangements stay the same. Theaters should put safety precautions in place to ensure no one sits right next to each other. Some theaters are opting for a “checkerboard” style seating pattern, while others are blocking off some seats entirely. Luxury theaters with larger seats are even buying free-standing sneeze guard panels to put between seats to ensure patrons’ health and safety. Guests should remain six feet apart and seated throughout the film’s duration at any theater.

4. Staggered Showtimes

Another way to limit contact between customers and maintain social distancing in the movie theaters is by staggering showtimes. When multiple movies get out at once, it can cause chaos in a movie theater lobby. By spacing out showtimes, you limit the opportunities for touching and transmission during these in-between moments. Allowing adequate time between showings to sanitize the seats and other high-contact areas will also make your customers feel more at ease. 

5. Limit Laughter

Although the theater often offers an escape from everyday life’s monotony, laughter must be limited during these difficult times. Some theaters are opting for more dramatic or documentary-style movies, so viewers won’t laugh and risk spreading contaminated fluids to other customers. Laughter is contagious, but so are some airborne illnesses, so it’s best to keep the comedies to a minimum. 

6. Remove Self-Serve Concessions

It’s true that there is something special about the butter-soaked popcorn popped fresh behind the concession counter at your local movie theater. However, while the risk of contracting the virus is still imminent, keep concessions to a minimum.

Remove all self-serve soda stands and other high-contact concession areas. At ticketing and food counters, like restaurants and grocery stores, consider utilizing transparent sneeze guards, so your staff can stay safe while still communicating effectively with customers. Sneeze guards for movie theaters are essential in protecting your customers and staff as they block bacteria from transferring between two people.

Getting Back To the Blockbusters

Movie theater owners are finding today’s current climate challenging to overcome. With so many Hollywood film productions placed on hold and people fearful of entering enclosed spaces with strangers, some theaters are struggling to stay afloat.

Luckily, there are some precautions you can take to get back to the blockbusters right away. Since more scientists and virologists agree that theaters aren’t as high-risk as they seem, movie-goers might start making their way back with proper safety measures put into place.

Utilize sneeze guards and masks throughout the theater to limit the spread of germs, bacteria, and bodily fluids between staff and customers. Keep adequate amounts of seats saved to account for social distancing standards. If everyone stays seated, silent, and stops snacking so heavily, theaters can actually be a pretty safe space. Contact a sneeze guard manufacturer, implement stringent safety measures, and open those doors so your customers can come to get that little escape from reality they’ve all been needing so terribly.