Remember that mystical, magical, buttery place you used to visit once a month? Maybe you would visit that large atrium and comfy, cushiony seat every other weekend. Or maybe you were like me and you would visit a movie theater twice a week. Either way, you visited the theater. And then you couldn’t.
2020 decided to throw you a curveball. And, like a curveball, sometimes you can see it coming. If you kept up with the news, you knew rumblings of a virus were a-brewin’ as early as January. And then, March hit like a storm, and entertainment venues, including theaters, were shut down. After the eye had passed and we thought we were comfortable, ready to get back out into the world again, Summer started and reminded us that, sometimes, these things take time.
Not only that, but you also may not have felt safe collecting a Redbox rental (bless your region if you still have Redbox!). Streaming services became your best friend! Soon you weren’t rewatching The Office, but adventuring out into the wonderful world of Netflix originals, or finally pressing play on that show your friend keeps telling you about.
However, since August 20th, movie theaters across the United States have been reopening, and I’ve visited a few over the last few weeks. Part research, part enjoyment, part hobbyist desperation; let me tell you about my experience at the movie theaters, and whether I feel they’re safe.
Our First Outing
Our first ticket purchase in several months was for Christopher Nolan’s 10th-anniversary screening of Inception. Not only did I have vague memories of the film, but it would also be my wife’s first time seeing what many consider Nolan’s greatest work (in a theater, no less!). When considering the film-watching experience in a movie theater, I suspected the excitement of watching Leonardo DiCaprio and company performing a complex dream-state heist movie on screen would be as amazing as ever. The thrills of the theater experience wouldn’t have vanished after five months away.
And yet, it’s the theater-going experience that’s changed. With the present, reasonable fear of the coronavirus, asymptomatic carriers, and the virus hot-bed that is a boxed-in, windowless room for aerosols to collect, people are comfortable forgoing movie theaters a little bit longer, even if Christopher Nolan’s latest film Tenet just released to reasonable fanfare.
As I drove us to the theater my stomach was deeply unsettled, and I could feel myself wondering, “Is this needless? What are we doing? This is so irresponsible.” I contemplated turning around, canceling our tickets, and enjoying home-made popcorn while watching something on a streaming service. Low-risk, but ultimately, low-reward.
I didn’t say anything. I ignored the feeling. I kept driving.
When we parked, we donned our masks. I had to sit it just right for my glasses to rest comfortably. Then, once they were comfortable, I realized they would fog up with each breath I took, so I had to situate them in a way that was both comfortable and viable for seeing things (a necessary part of the movie experience). Inception’s runtime is a hundred and forty-eight minutes, so I needed them perfectly situated.
I looked at my wife and I felt compelled to pray, so we did. It seemed absurd to ask God for our safety when we were willingly doing something unnecessary – so ‘non-essential’ – but we asked that our visit would be one of good health, fun memories, and honoring Him in our choices. We prayed that people would keep their masks on and follow guidelines. We prayed that others would be respectful to those working, and express kindness to the minimum-wage employees working to pay off college loans, cover rent, or make-ends-meet just like the rest of us. We prayed, got out of the car, and saw the parking lot.
It Was Empty
We stepped inside and the box office line, too, was empty. Into the atrium and the concession line; empty. The long hallway to our theater; empty. Our theater itself; virtually empty. Perhaps the thing that stood out the most was cardboard cutouts of movies that should have released in Spring.
All of this contrasted with what I was used to on a typical weekend. It was a long cry from the opening day for a Marvel film!
At a glance, I counted roughly thirty people, including staff, throughout the atrium and main hall. In my theater, I estimated fifteen people in total sat in a room that could house upwards of one hundred. Most theaters advertised their venues were reducing attendance as low as 30%-40% capacity. This felt like 10%.
To say I was relieved is an understatement. On top of low attendance, the AMC I attended visibly respected its guidelines and enforced its mask policy among attendants and employees. I even witnessed an employee cleaning contact surfaces which made me feel better, even though current studies show COVID-19 spreads largely through aerosol’s and less from direct contact. And while there were definitely slip ups (at the end of Inception, a man sitting a few seats from me dropped his mask to talk to a friend), my wife and I left feeling safer visiting the movie theater than we typically do visiting an ALDI or Giant grocery store.
Since that initial trip to see Inception, I’ve seen two more movies in theaters. One trip was to see The New Mutants’ rightful day on the big screen, and the other was to catch Tenet in a Dolby Digital screening (because I despise IMAX). Both times, I liberally took advantage of the hand-washing stations, repeatedly used sanitation wipes that were distributed before each theater, and largely felt more and more comfortable with each subsequent visit.
But, is it Safe?
Between my visits, I coordinated with a local Urgent Care to have myself tested for COVID-19, and within 24 hours my results returned negative (praise God!). Not only has Pennsylvania’s response to the Coronavirus outbreak been effective, but our testing has improved exponentially. The combined nature of our state’s advancements alongside theaters taking things seriously leads me to feel more and more comfortable with my excursions. Not to mention, we aren’t in close relation to those who are immunocompromised.
This isn’t the case for everyone. Some places continue to see rising numbers, and others will no doubt be affected by the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (which has since been classified as a super-spreader). Some people have family members whose immune systems are damaged by previous illnesses or are simply within the age-threshold of increased fatality. And, others know their theaters can’t handle the extensive measures required to ensure safety.
The Coronavirus is still active and present, and while the Lord has relented of this calamity in some areas, not all locations and regions are equal. Just consider how poorly the United States has handled the pandemic compared to other countries, and the ‘return to normalcy’ graciously being experienced in those areas. While there are spots here-and-there within the United States that are experiencing a respite, or – Lord willing – long-term safety, that is not the case for some locales on the East and West Coast.
So, if you plan on visiting a theater in your area, consider the factors: how many cases are in your area, how has your state responded to and provided aid for positive coronavirus patients, what stipulations are in place for your local theater (here’s what AMC is doing nation-wide), and question whether you are in contact with immunocompromised individuals.
And please, please do not forget to pray. Prayer is one of the greatest means by which a Christian can express their humble servitude to God. The Coronavirus, like many things, is outside of your control; but not God’s! There are countless other reasons to be praying to God every day, and you can go to God for safety during small outings as well.
And trust that, perhaps, the Lord my put it on your heart to stay home. Prayer is not about getting things from God. Sometimes he denies what we request for our good. If that means missing out on visiting a movie theater? That’s alright.
You can always watch Regular Show on Hulu instead.
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Melvin Benson is the Founder, Executive Editor, and Lead Host of Cinematic Doctrine. He’s written fiction and nonfiction for over a decade with short stories featured on the Creepypasta Wiki and Wattpad. His novelette Ethereal Temptation, a teen drama with a tinge of magical-realism, can be read for free here. His hope is to see King Jesus glorified as far as the east is from the west!