Friday, April 10, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol 2, No. 3 What will life be like when theaters reopen?

Even before the spread of Covid-19, there had been no shortage of speculation about the future of movie theaters. But the coronavirus raises a host of threatening new questions about theatrical viewing, which (duh) often requires sitting next to someone, in front of someone and behind someone.

I write about movies. I do not cover the film industry. Even a haphazard perusal of Google entries will get you up to speed on current thinking among those who write about the commercial prospects of movies and theaters.

No, I’m thinking about the actual experience of attending a theater, of buying a ticket and sitting in an auditorium when movies renew their roll, especially if theaters must follow strenuous "guidelines" in order to open their doors.

I’m sure you’ve already pondered questions of your own but here are some of mine.

Can theaters handle limited seating — not just financially, but with real customers, not all of whom will be cooperative.

Let’s say two couples meet for dinner and a movie. They eat in a restaurant where socially distanced dining has become part of a limited economic trial run. Our diners are at least one table away from anyone else.

Having sat through a strange and possibly tense dining experience, our happy foursome is off to see a movie. Will they want to sit three seats apart from each other and everyone else — both on the sides and also in the rows immediately in front and behind them? Will they be required to wear masks? Will someone take their temperatures prior to entry? Will the people working concessions be wearing masks? Will you want to buy popcorn from them if they aren’t?

You’ll still have to pay for concessions with cash or a credit card. Money will change hands. Will you be able to enjoy yourself without thinking about every possible point of “contamination?

Need a trip to the bathroom? I’m not sure how social distancing can be enforced at a row of urinals. Will someone be stationed outside the restrooms to ensure that only two or three people enter at a time, depending on the size of the bathroom?

Will there be fewer shows so that every auditorium can be deep cleaned before the next show?

If there’s an elevator in the theater’s parking garage will people self-regulate so that they ride one passenger at a time, even after the movie lets out and everyone’s eager to hit the road?

Is any of this even possible?

I have no idea what life will be like when — as many seem to argue — things return to something we may view as “semi-normal” or as one writer called it “the new abnormal.”

I began to think about these questions as I read articles about the staged reopening of the economy, a managed process most experts seem to think will be necessary.

I’m sure you can think of a zillion more questions. Will we able to feel reasonably sure that those who test positive going forward will be quarantined, so none of them are in theaters?

Beats me.

Some of the ways people respond to the reopening of theaters may depend on the group to which they belong. The young and those who feel invincible or simply are willing to gamble with their health will return to theaters. Older people likely will be more cautious. If you’re 65 or older, do you really want to risk your life to see the new James Bond movie?

The answers to these questions depend, in large part, on when people across all groups truly feel safe — or at least enough of them do to make things work, even if only in halting fashion.

Of course, there’s another and even more disturbing question. Will people really be safe or will they be betting on an illusion? Only the virus knows for sure and it does its talking in ways that will remain potentially lethal until there are medicines that work to squelch it or a vaccine that keeps us from getting it in the first place, preferably both.

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