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AMC won't mandate guests wear masks when theaters reopen

“We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy,” AMC CEO and president Adam Aron said.
Outside view of a closed AMC Theater amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 12, 2020, in Burbank, California.VALERIE MACON / AFP via Getty Images

AMC Theatres, the world’s largest exhibitor, has unveiled plans to re-open after coronavirus forced it to close its more than 600 venues in the U.S. for nearly four months.

The company is expected to resume operations in 450 of those locations on July 15 and expects to be almost fully operational by the time that Disney’s “Mulan” debuts on July 24 and Warner Bros.’ “Tenet” bows on July 31.

As part of that process, AMC is reducing its seating capacity in order to help people social distance, it is implementing new cleaning procedures, placing hand-sanitizing stations throughout its theaters and encouraging contact-less and cash-free concessions.

“We didn’t rush to reopen,” AMC CEO and president Adam Aron said in an interview with Variety. “There were some jurisdictions in some states, such as Georgia and Texas, that allowed people to reopen theaters in mid-May. We opted to remain closed, so we could give the country time to get a better handle on coronavirus. We wanted to use this time to figure out how best to open and how to do so safely.”

AMC’s competitors Regal and Cinemark announced their own plans to resume business earlier this week, targeting a similar mid-July timeframe for when they expect to be fully operational.

The exhibition sector, and particularly AMC, are under pressure to bring customers back to cinemas. Prior to coronavirus there was a great deal of consolidation in the exhibition space, much of it made possible by debt financing. AMC’s decision to acquire rivals such as Odeon Cinemas, UCI Cinemas and Carmike Cinemas left it heavily leveraged with more than $5 billion in debt. In recent filings, AMC acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic could push it into bankruptcy. Aron expressed confidence that the theater chain would be able to avoid Chapter 11 and would be able to have enough revenue to service its debt obligations.

“In my heart of hearts, I think we can manage AMC through this crisis,” said Aron. “There are no guarantees and nobody knows what coronavirus will look like in the winter or how long it will take to get a vaccine, but I can tell you that we have a very able management team here. We’re going to make every effort to make sure that AMC continues to be well positioned as a leader of the movie theater industry.”

AMC will not mandate that all guests wear masks, although employees will be required to do so. Nor will AMC perform temperature checks on customers, though it will monitor its employees’ temperatures and have them undergo screenings to check for signs of coronavirus. The situation will be different in states and cities that require residents to wear a mask when they’re in public, but Aron said that AMC was wary of wading into a public health issue that has become politicized.

“We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy,” said Aron. “We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary. We think that the vast majority of AMC guests will be wearing masks. When I go to an AMC feature, I will certainly be wearing a mask and leading by example.”

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AMC will also sell masks for a dollar to guests who forgot to bring one. Both Cinemark and Regal are encouraging guests to wear masks, but not requiring it in states and areas where it is not mandated.

As it worked to establish and implement new procedures, AMC partnered with The Clorox Company, and current and former faculty of Harvard University’s School of Public Health. On their advice, the theater chain said that it is going to lean heavily on technological solutions such as deploying electrostatic sprayers, HEPA vacuums and upgraded MERV 13 ventilation filters, which would eliminate airborne particles and reduce the chance that COVID-19 will spread.

Other procedures being implemented include cleaning auditoriums between each showtime and allowing extra time between screenings for disinfection; blocking out every other row of seats to decrease congestion; pushing guests to use online ticketing and kiosks to limit interactions with staff, and designating various points within theaters for one-way foot traffic.

AMC said it plans to increase capacity in its theaters in stages. At first, AMC will only make available 30% of capacity in every showtime. Over time, that will increase to 40% and then 50% capacity. AMC hopes that it will be able to have half of its auditoriums full by Labor Day and projects that it will be at full capacity by Thanksgiving. The reopening is taking place as cases of coronavirus are falling sharply in former epicenters such as New York, but rising in other states such as Florida and Arizona.

In order to educate theater-goers about the new measures, AMC is participating in an industry-wide marketing push that’s been orchestrated by talent agency CAA and overseen by former Imax Entertainment chief Greg Foster. The company is planning its own promotional efforts, as well.

“Tenet,” Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller, had originally hoped to kick off moviegoing when it opened on July 17. Last week, Warner Bros., the studio behind the film, announced that “Tenet” would be delayed until July 31. Aron expressed confidence that “Tenet” won’t be postponed again.