As theaters in California near reopening after weeks of lockdown, we finally have a clearer idea of what a post-pandemic theater experience might look like in more densely populated cities. And it’s not going to look or feel like the movies did before—not for a while, at least.
Movie theaters in some California counties may be able to start reopening for business as early as Friday provided they meet specific guidelines for family entertainment centers. Even then, they can only reopen with approval by a county health officer and after taking into consideration factors such as the number of positive cases relative to the population, testing, and contact tracing protocols. And when some reopen, the experience is going to feel far different than those packed, pre-pandemic opening nights.
Movie theaters must reduce capacity to just 25 percent or a maximum of 100 theatergoers, depending on which is lower, according to the guidelines. Masks must be used by customers as well as theater staff, and moviegoers will be asked to maintain social distance between themselves and those of other households to the greatest extent possible.
Cinemas are also being asked to consider reservation systems to limit the number of attendees entering a theater at once, as well as specific enter and exit routes to reduce the need for people to walk past each other. Face coverings would likely be required during any time that a person isn’t eating or drinking—which might prove tricky to enforce once folks are in their seats—but at the very least, while they’re at the concessions counter or entering or leaving the building.
Additionally, in order to enforce social distancing in-theater, the guidelines advise reconfiguring or removing seats, perhaps even by requiring “seating every other row or blocking off or removing seats in a ‘checkerboard’ style (use each row but make sure no one is directly behind other patrons) so that distances are maintained in all directions.” People who live in the same household would be able to sit together but might need to be separated from those from other households.
Theaters are also being asked to consider disposable or washable seat covers to be replaced between each use, limiting the number of people that can use a restroom at once to prevent crowding (which, as anyone who’s ever visited a women’s bathroom post-showing knows, is real), and dedicating specific staff for things like directing foot traffic and holding open doors to help enforce social distancing.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the capacity rule for California theaters could ease up after roughly two weeks. But some changes will likely be enforced long-term until more is known about covid-19 and its spread.
Still, getting people in the door may prove one of the toughest challenges to theaters even after all the measures they’re required to take before opening. The bottom line is that there’s much about the virus we still don’t know, and that means that resuming business operations with even extreme restrictions on proximity won’t offer the kind of assurances many theatergoers may need before they feel comfortable returning to the movies—something theater chains are already well aware could contribute to their demise.