By Tyler Aquilina
August 21, 2020 at 02:25 PM EDT
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Credit: John Paraskevas/Newsday RM via Getty Images

Even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge through the country, movie theaters are pressing ahead with plans to reopen, but the moviegoing experience is probably going to look a bit different for quite a while.

The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) has introduced a set of health and safety protocols, dubbed "CinemaSafe," they are encouraging theaters to adopt as they reopen. NATO claims these voluntary protocols, which include requiring face masks (though they may be removed briefly to consume food and beverages), reduced capacity and increased ventilation in auditoriums, and digital ticket sales, will ensure consumers' safety from COVID-19.

"In this new pandemic world, moviegoers need to know that there is a consistent, science and experience-based set of health and safety protocols in place no matter what theater they visit. This unprecedented industry-wide effort is a promise designed to meet that need," NATO head John Fithian said in a Friday press conference announcing the measures.

The majority of U.S. movie theaters have remained shuttered since March, when the coronavirus first struck the country in full force and led to a nationwide shutdown. But with a crop of new releases set to hit the big screen in a matter of weeks, including The New Mutants and Christopher Nolan's Tenet, theaters have already begun to reopen their doors. In a show of solidarity, the heads of several major theater chains, including AMC, Cinemark, Regal, and Marcus, joined the press conference to tout their confidence in the CinemaSafe protocols.

“Our main message to customers is, 'Come back to the cinemas that you love, because they are safe,'” said Mooky Greidinger, CEO of Regal parent Cineworld.

The protocols were developed over several months in consultation with epidemiologists, including Dr. David Goldsmith of George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, and Dr. Joyce Sanchez of the Medical College of Wisconsin. Both Goldsmith and Sanchez also joined the press conference, stressing that while "going to the movies is not risk-free," in Sanchez's words, the guidelines should help mitigate the danger of contracting COVID-19.

“There have been no published findings that show a link between going to see a movie and contracting COVID-19," said Goldsmith. “Based on all the literature I’ve been able to see, there is no evidence that attending a movie…becomes more of a risky business setting than going to a restaurant, or going shopping, or even going to a religious gathering.”

“The number one thing I would recommend is to honor the people around you and honor the policies in place," Sanchez added, also urging would-be moviegoers to "consider what the state of the pandemic is in your own local communities" before deciding to go to a theater.

The CinemaSafe protocols also include modified concession stands to minimize contact between employees and customers, enhanced cleaning to disinfect auditoriums between screenings, and "liberal" placement of hand sanitizer throughout theater locations.

Addressing concerns about enforcing guidelines such as the face mask mandate, the theater heads seemed confident that moviegoers would comply with such regulations. "Our customers told us loudly that [strongly encouraging masks] was not enough," AMC CEO Adam Aron said. "It’s easy to enforce this policy, because this is what moviegoers want."

Mark Zoradi, CEO of Cinemark, which has already opened more than 100 l0cations across the country, said that pushback against masks has "been a very small or nonexistent issue." “I think the consumer understands the situation at this point," he said. "If they’re going into a public retail environment, a mask is required.”

Zoradi added that no matter the risk, there is a clear appetite among consumers to return to theaters and see movies on the big screen. “Customers very much want to come back to the cinema," he said. "They're very excited to come back and have a shared cinematic experience."

For the latest information on coronavirus (COVID-19), including how to protect yourself and what to do if you think you are sick, please visit coronavirus.gov.

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