Now that our governor is finished with her shark week, perhaps she can bite into a small but persistent inequity in our COVID-19 shutdowns that, frankly, has gone on too long.
They have been closed in Michigan, with the exception of the Traverse City and Upper Peninsula regions, for nearly six months, since the earliest days of our pandemic response. Many want to know why. We have reopened stores. Reopened bars. Reopened restaurants. Reopened casinos. We’ve even reopened hair and nail salons, where customer and employee by definition come in close contact with each other.
Yet movie theaters remain shuttered, and players in the local industry claim they have never been given a real reason, despite frequent pleas for relief.
“I think that was really the root of my frustration,” says Paul Glantz, chairman of Emagine Entertainment, which operates 10 theaters in the state. “I felt like if we were closed for all this time, we were entitled to understand what differentiated movie theaters from other venues.”
It’s a good question. Because, if you think about it, the biggest issues of virus spread are more easily addressed in movie theaters than in many entities which already have a green light.
Take social distancing. Movie theaters have an easy solution: Don’t sell seats to different parties closer than 6 feet apart. Boom. Done. And since the act of watching a movie is generally a sit-still-for-2-hours activity, there’s far less chance of interaction, even casual, than at a restaurant, bar or casino.
Also, what’s the biggest risk we are constantly warned about with COVID-19? Prolonged exposure to someone breathing virus-tinged droplets in your direction. This comes mostly from 1) loud conversation; 2) singing; 3) heavy breathing. The first two are not even allowed in movie theaters and the third is hardly common there, no matter how exciting a film gets.
Let’s face it. You drive up. You go in. You get your seats. You sit quietly. Maybe you buy popcorn and drinks — all while wearing masks, no different than going to a McDonald’s — and when you’re done, you go back to your car.
Compared to offices, bars or food places, there is minimal conversation. Compared to getting hair or nails done, it’s hardly a close encounter.
So why do locks remain on theater doors?
The issue with keeping the curtain down
“I appreciate the job the governor has,” says Jon Goldstein, who owns Maple Theater and Riviera Cinema in metro Detroit. “I think it’s a difficult job, especially in a pandemic, and she’s done really good work in protecting us. But I think she’s missed the boat in a couple of places, and one of them is theaters. I think she must think we want to open to packed houses of people, all sitting together. That’s not the way we want to do it.
“We spent a lot of time, like she says, gathering data and talking to experts, everything she advocated. Yet we haven’t been able to break through. It makes you wonder what’s going on. You still get your property tax bills from your government municipalities. How do they expect me to pay those is if they won’t let me open?”
Goldstein’s case feels more acute because, like Glantz, he also co-owns theaters in Minnesota, which were allowed to open in mid-June. In fact, more than 40 states now have movie theaters open in various stages. Goldstein says in two months of operating in Minnesota, there have been zero instances of COVID-19 spread, zero complaints, and zero problems with state officials.
“The local health department officials do come in,” he says. “They look around. They see what we’re doing. They say this is fine.”
So why not in Michigan? Perhaps those in charge envision “Star Wars” openings, people packing in seats, awkwardly edging past one another, back and forth, lines in bathrooms and concession stands. But that level of business is not being proposed — and frankly, won’t be happening for a long time.
According to a recent survey conducted by Morning Consult, a market research company, only around 17% of consumers say they feel comfortable going to the movies. There is a dearth of new product — and won’t be much coming — so the draw isn’t close to pre-COVID days.
And, most importantly, the theaters themselves are not proposing crowds. Glantz says he would have two full seats between every party, which would create spaces of “6 feet side to side and 7 feet front to back.” And as he points out, in a movie theater, unlike a restaurant, “everyone is facing the same direction.”
Actual audience would be a fraction of capacity. In his Minnesota theater, Goldstein says, he’s doing “150 people a day in a 15-theater facility.” You can have your own section with those numbers.
There have been concerns in the past that air conditioning could somehow spread the virus through a theater. Again, Glantz says his theaters have all been reviewed with mechanical engineers, ensuring the proper “air displacement.” And honestly, how is theater air conditioning a different concern than casino, restaurant, or small retail store air conditioning?
‘If we can just stop burning cash …’
Now, you might ask how can a theater survive with such limited seating — and therefore limited customers? The truth is, if you take a weekly average, movie theaters generally operate at maybe a 25% capacity. And that’s in good times. For every packed Friday night, there’s theaters with six people in them on a Wednesday afternoon.
During COVID-19, owners figure that by showing whatever limited new product comes out in multiple theaters (a new blockbuster Christopher Nolan movie is due soon, for example) they can make back some of what they used to take in on a big weekend by spreading the audience out over multiple venues..
And, as Goldstein says, “If we can just stop burning cash, that would be huge. We could at least pay our property taxes.”
You’d think the government would want that.
Now, I know there are other business which cater to the public that are also still locked down, and equally upset. Gyms and health clubs, for one. Concert venues. Sporting arenas.
But in each of those cases, you can find things that you don’t find in movie theaters. The respiration and perspiration issues in a gym. The needed numbers to justify a concert. And while sporting events are sacrificing box office, many are still in action and therefore making money through their TV deals.
But a closed movie theater does no business. The good news is that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer indicated she might take a fresh look at the industry this week. Owners such as Glantz and Goldstein are trying to be hopeful. A lawsuit filed earlier this summer by Emagine against the governor and other officials was denied by a judge last month.
“An adversarial position (against) the governor has not proven to be effective,” Glantz admits. “So we’re going to smile and support the governor’s efforts and insure that we are there to protect the safety and health of our guests as soon as we’re allowed to open.”
She should let that happen. Now. The current COVID numbers don’t prohibit it. And people’s judgment — which we are relying on in many other places — should at least be tried in a quiet, well-spaced facility. It seems only fair.
Besides, theaters have been showing old movies to fill their seats. So, in appreciation of Gov. Whitmer, they could bring back “Jaws.” And then it would really be shark week …well, you know.
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