Regal Cinemas have announced arbitrary new safety guidelines to facilitate crowds of people packing together amidst the coronavirus pandemic. America’s second-largest movie theater chain will reopen July 10th.
Taken together, the newly-announced rules have all the charm and capriciousness of a trip through airport security. Regal Cinemas has implemented a suite of regulations to stop surface-to-person transmission of COVID-19, even though the CDC thinks that’s relatively rare. And despite the fact that mask wearing is the single best precaution people can take — scientists think it might be more important than social distancing — Regal is deferring to local regulations around masks, and won’t force employees or customers to wear them in states where it isn’t required.
But if the novel coronavirus did travel easily through surfaces like credit cards and seat cushions, Regal Cinemas would be doing a bang-up job. The theater chain has introduced mandatory contactless payment, which conveniently requires users to download the Regal Cinemas app. Additionally, the auditoriums themselves will be disinfected between showings, and “each theatre will sanitize high-contact points on an increased schedule.” These are all fine ideas and will surely help stop the spread of the virus. But disinfecting bathrooms slightly more frequently, without requiring mask use, is like making sure the stove is turned off while the bedroom is on fire.
Additionally, Regal has announced a series of social distancing measures. Floor markers will be making an appearance, and at the concession stand, every second register will be closed in order to keep lines further apart. The theater’s reservation system will automatically leave two seats between groups, and at non-reservation showings, patrons will be asked to leave two seats of space. But more strict social distancing measures are left at the discretion of the states. For example, “Group sizes will only be limited where required by a state or county mandate.” Furthermore, where it is required by law, auditorium capacities will be reduced to 50%. In other, redder states, the philosophy is a bit more, as Trump might put it, “Live and let die.”
Finally, a host of typical movie theater amenities have been suspended. Arcades, vending machines, water fountains, and restaurants will remain closed — although bars will be open for take-away — and refills on drinks and popcorn is no longer allowed. To further stop the spread of surface-to-person transmission, wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispensers will be available in the lobby. Many of these policies will help, and none of the changes made by Regal Cinemas seem likely to hurt. But by abdicating responsibility for overall capacity and mask usage, the theater chain is avoiding potential political conflicts at the expense of consumer health.
These are tricky issues, and other movie theater chains are grappling with them in their own ways. Alamo Drafthouse is remaining closed despite Texas’ decision to re-open. AMC Theaters are trying to wait until studios release blockbusters, but they may not have to come to any decisions, as the chain now has “substantial doubt” they’ll survive the pandemic.