Moviegoers return as Cinemark cautiously reopens

PLANO — Theater 4 smelled more like disinfectant and cleaning products than freshly popped popcorn.

A dozen people were spread out in the theater at Cinemark’s West Plano location on Friday for a 1:05 p.m. screening of The Invisible Man, starring Elisabeth Moss.

Tony Johnson and Hannah Potter were not just the first people inside theater 4 on Friday, they were Cinemark’s first customers since the theater closed in March. They arrived just as the theater’s staff had one final stand-up meeting before opening the doors.

“I love the movies,” Potter said. “I used to come as often as possible, so I was really sad when they closed.”

Cinemark is the first major theater chain in North Texas to reopen its doors, welcoming customers Friday at locations in West Plano, McKinney and northwest Dallas off of Webb Chapel. It will resume operations at other locations on a rolling basis in the coming weeks.

Theaters were allowed to resume screenings with audiences up to 25% capacity starting May 1 under Phase I of Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas, but many chains — including AMC, Alamo Draft-house, Cinépolis, Studio Movie Grill, Regal Cinemas, Landmark Theatres and Angelika Film Centers — have been waiting.

“I’m more of a Netflix-at-home guy, but it’s nice to get out,” Johnson said.

Less than 10 minutes into the movie, just as Moss’ character was trying to sneak out of bed without her boyfriend noticing, a man in the theater coughed. He wasn’t wearing a mask, but there was plenty of space between him and other moviegoers.

To limit capacities and promote social distancing, when a Cinemark guest selects a seat for a movie online, two seats on either side of it are automatically blocked off.

Cinemark is taking several steps to ensure the safety of employees and moviegoers. Those measures include sanitizing high-touch surfaces such as door handles, drink stations and ticket kiosks every 30 minutes, as well as sanitizing handrails and seats between showtimes.

Cinemark no longer requires paper tickets, encouraging customers to buy their tickets online, and cash payments are not accepted at concession stands.

“We want to make sure when we actually opened we could create a safe environment for customers and employees,” said Sean Gamble, Cinemark’s chief operating officer.

Cinemark employees undergo health screenings before each shift and are required to wear masks. Guests are “strongly encouraged” to wear masks, but they are not mandatory, according to Cinemark.

At the theater on Friday, it seemed as though at least more than half of customers were complying by wearing masks, even if they had to lift them up for bites of popcorn and sips of soda.

Dr. Philip Huang, Dallas County Health and Human Services director, recommends all moviegoers wear a mask even if seats are spaced apart.

“Because it’s an enclosed space for a long period of time,” Huang said of attending a movie.

Cinemark said it would comply with any local policies requiring the use of masks in businesses. That will now include locations in Dallas County, where a mask mandate goes into effect at 11:59 p.m. Friday. Businesses that do not comply could face a fine of up to $500 per violation.

And on Friday, AMC Theaters CEO Adam Aron said that its theaters will require patrons to wear masks upon reopening, which will begin in mid-July. Customers who don’t wear masks won’t be admitted or allowed to stay.

Harry LaRosiliere, the mayor of Plano, where Cinemark is headquartered, cosigned a letter on Tuesday asking Abbott for the power to require residents to wear masks in public. The letter was also signed by the mayors of Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Arlington and Grand Prairie.

Dan Dunham, who went to see The Invisible Man by himself on Friday, said he felt safe inside the theater even as COVID-19 cases rise across North Texas. He said he usually watches about 35 movies per year.

“I’ve been missing this just as much as anything,” said Dunham, who was wearing a blue surgical mask and had a bottle of hand sanitizer on his tray next to his popcorn and soft drink.

For now, many of the movies screening at Cinemark will be films most people could stream online. Many blockbusters have been pushed back as movie theaters around the world were closed.

In the meantime, Cinemark will screen Hollywood classics at a cheaper price, along with more recent films.

Even though it’s more than 30 years old, Back to the Future has been among the classics driving ticket sales this weekend, according to Gamble.

Screening classic movies first gives employees and customers a “ramp-up” period before new films are released in July, he said.

Still, Huang points to Dallas County’s color-coded chart with recommendations on how, and when, they can participate in daily activities. The chart — created by public health, epidemiology and infectious disease experts — currently has Dallas County’s risk level in the red category, indicating a high community risk for COVID-19 transmission.

“At this stage, given that we’re seeing record numbers of cases and hospitalizations, we would not recommend going to the movies,” Huang said. “You always have to make a risk assessment. How important for you is it to see this movie vs. seeing it on Netflix?”

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