A handful states are starting to reopen for business, but theaters around the country remain closed. The major chains are not expecting to open until July at the earliest.
But in Oklahoma, one theater is making plans to open well before then.
Gov. Kevin Stitt — who stirred controversy in March when he posted a photo of himself and his kids at a crowded restaurant — announced on Wednesday that many businesses, including theaters, will be allowed to reopen on Friday, May 1.
At Circle Cinema in Tulsa, owner Clark Wiens doesn’t plan to open the doors quite that fast. But he does intend to reopen sometime in May, and he is changing his operations to get ready. He has installed plexiglass screens, and plans for all theater employees to wear masks and gloves.
“We made a lot of changes,” he told Variety in an interview. “We want to find all we can so you would not have to have physical contact with anything in the theater, beside setting your posterior in the seat.”
Circle Cinema may end up serving as a test case for the future of moviegoing in the COVID-19 era. So far, a number of drive-in theaters around the country have remained open, on the theory that patrons can watch a movie safely from their cars. (Going to the bathroom, meanwhile, still poses a challenge.)
But even in Georgia — where Gov. Brian Kemp lifted the restriction on theaters, effective next Monday — it does not appear that any indoor theaters have felt safe reopening. Going to the movies — unlike, say, getting a haircut — still seems relatively inessential to a lot of people. One study suggested that the coronavirus can be transmitted through air-conditioning systems, suggesting that theater-going might still be somewhat risky.
In Oklahoma, state public health authorities say that cases have been declining, enough so that the state can enter “Phase 1” of reopening.
However, that is not the case in Tulsa. The county has seen 467 infections and 27 deaths, as of Friday, and the new infection numbers continue to rise. Even so, Mayor G.T. Bynum announced on Friday that the city would go along with the state mandate to reopen. Bynum said that cases would inevitably trend upwards as communities surrounding Tulsa open up, and that therefore it would be “futile” to ask his constituents to remain inside indefinitely.
“I cannot in good conscience ask Tulsans to continue making these extreme personal and financial sacrifices at such a level in pursuit of a goal that will be impossible to reach in any reasonable period of time,” Bynum said.
After Bynum’s announcement, Wiens said he consulted with his staff of about eight people to see if they were comfortable returning to work.
“They are all gung-ho,” he said. “They are all willing and excited about coming back to work, though they are concerned about their health.”
Wiens had obtained a Paycheck Protection Program loan, so he was able to keep his employees on staff throughout the closure. Now they are focused on communicating with patrons and making adjustments to operations in anticipation of reopening.
He plans to have paper salt packets, instead of a dispenser, and to change the butter dispenser so patrons will not have to touch anything. Employees will wipe down the seats between shows, and he will probably only be able to have about 50% capacity at most.
“It’s going to be spaced seating, so no one will sit directly in front of you or behind you,” he said.
He is not sure yet whether patrons will have to wear masks, which he acknowledges would make it difficult to eat popcorn. He plans to send a survey to his email list asking what customers would be comfortable with. One idea is to have souvenir “Circle Cinema” masks.
Then there is the question of what he will show. Circle Cinema is an art-house theater, and Wiens gets most of his films from IFC, Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics.
“We are getting a title from Sony Pictures Classics,” he said. “I don’t know the name. It won’t be ‘La La Land’ or ‘The Shape of Water.’ It will be more marginal.”
He expects to reopen sometime between May 15 and June 1.
“I think we’ll do OK,” he said. The key unanswered question, he said, is “At what point do you as an individual feel relaxed going to a movie theater?”