It’s been almost an entire year since NYC movie theaters shut down as COVID-19 tore through the town, but last Friday several independent theaters, and one big movie chain, finally reopened. On Saturday night, I re-entered a movie theater for the first time since early 2020, to watch a big Hollywood feature in the East Village, but also to see how things have changed. A big up-front caveat to all of this: I’m fully vaccinated, having received my second Moderna shot three weeks ago. So while my behavior hasn’t changed—I still always wear a KN95 mask, get tested weekly, and don’t yet dine indoors—the vaccination definitely makes me feel more at ease moving through the world… or, in this case, sitting in one place for two-plus hours with a bunch of strangers.
Let’s look at how AMC’s key safeguards and restrictions played out at Saturday night’s 7:15 p.m. showing of Chaos Walking at their Village 7 theater, where it cost me $21.48 for my ticket.
- CAPACITY LIMITS Not really an issue for Chaos Walking, a poorly-reviewed mess of a sci-fi adventure, which did not sell out even with the 25% occupancy mandate. There were fewer than 20 people in there with me, and this was in one of the theater’s largest auditoriums. The whole place felt empty, depressingly so, with none of the usual lobby hubbub and excitement.
- DISTANCING Of course, capacity restrictions are meaningless if everyone is bunched up in the two or three prime center rows. Fortunately, AMC’s ordering system handles this well, automatically blocking off two seats on either side of your party. At Village 7 it’s all recliners, so there’s already lots of space between rows, but in the unrenovated theaters up at AMC’s Lincoln Square multiplex they also instantly block out the positions in front of and behind you, so you have your own little island encircled by empty seats.
- HYGIENE It’s nice to have a clean theater! I’m glad that AMC auditoriums are swept through with an electrostatic disinfectant sprayer between each show, and that people use those hand sanitizer dispensers that are everywhere (there was also a massive tub of anti-bacterial wipes in the lobby). However, as epidemiologist Dr. Jessica Justman told Gothamist just a few weeks ago, “contamination of surfaces with the coronavirus virus really is of minimal importance.”
- MASKS This is where the whole thing kind of falls apart. AMC makes a big deal out the mask requirement, with stern signage everywhere, and even disallowing bandanas and neck gaiters from counting as protection. They’ll even sell you a mask for a dollar if for some reason after a year of doing this you still don’t understand how it all works. But since they allow patrons to take masks off “when enjoying food and drinks from our concession stand,” the whole thing kind of goes to hell. Do you know how long it can take someone to eat an entire tub of popcorn? At least the length of a Chaos Walking, apparently. (Note: not every movie theater is reopening with concessions, in order to avoid this chaos.)
Most people in the theater on Saturday enjoyed the experience without snacks, and kept their masks in place, but my row-neighbors took off their masks immediately upon settling in, ostensibly to sip their beverages, and then just left them off the entire time. Same with the couple in front of me. There were no AMC employees monitoring mask protocol, and I definitely would have walked out with an anxiety attack if I hadn’t been vaccinated already.
Which is too bad, because otherwise, it was glorious to be back in the theater, even seeing such a mediocre movie. The dark room, the large screen, the big sound, the much-more-comfortable chair than anything I have at home… It felt amazing. In The Before, I went out to the movies a lot, well over a hundred times a year, but I didn’t quite realize how much I missed it until Saturday night. That said, I think my next movie will be at the IFC Center, which requires masks AND doesn’t allow eating and drinking in the theater.
A note on human nature: Unbelievably, but also predictably, even after a whole year of doing nothing but looking at their phones at home, people still looked at their phones during the movie.