Since watching Trolls World Tour in Cheeto-stained sweatpants with the blinds closed has somehow lost its luster, a lot of people are jonesing to get back into movie theaters. Well, if you live in the United States, cinemas near you will likely be opening soon, if they haven't already. AMC is planning on un-shuttering 450 of its U.S. theatres by July 15. Naturally, safety is a big concern, after all, you can't pretend to understand what the fuck happened in Tenet if you're running a fever and your lungs are failing. AMC CEO and president Adam Aron claims that theaters will institute new cleaning procedures, provide hand-sanitizing stations, and offer contact-free concessions. It's all part of AMC's new "Safe & Clean" program, which they proudly boast included the input of Dr. Joseph Allen of the Harvard School of Public Health and the faceless entity known only as "Clorox."
But at first, this new initiative didn't require that attendees wear face masks, only employees. Why? Because AMC does not "want to be drawn into a political controversy," according to Aron, who was presumably holding a monkey's paw at the time.
Yes, claiming that wearing face masks, a public health measure, is a matter of political subjectivity kickstarted the very controversy AMC was allegedly trying to avoid. Now AMC has reversed their decision and are making masks mandatory after a very public backlash. But Regal and Cinemark theaters are not requiring masks, despite AMC's backtracking and the fact that study after study has shown that wearing face masks reduces the spread of COVID-19 infection (while increasing the spread of people constantly doing the Bane voice).
And sure, we get that the 16-year-old employee whose job used to consist of simply ripping tickets and conning people into spending an extra 50 cents on butter-flavored mystery goop may not be equipped to deal with some maskless dude throwing a hissy fit while trying to catch a matinee of The Goonies. But wearing masks is specifically important in movie theaters where people are paying to spend two hours in a room with strangers. Health experts have specifically stated that reopening theatre chains should "ensure everyone is wearing a mask at all times." Even Dr. Joseph Allen, AMC Safe & Clean's fancy medical advisor, stated back in May that "Universal mask-wearing should happen," adding: "If you're near other people ... you should be wearing a mask." Which is something you'd think he would, you know, advise.
One detail that remains unclear, and potentially problematic, is whether AMC will continue to sell food -- because last time we checked, you can't absorb Milk Duds through your ear canal. According to one infectious disease expert, all theaters should stop selling snacks "because to eat or drink, you have to take off your mask." In retrospect, it's more likely that AMC wasn't afraid of the politics of masks, but rather that this particular safety precaution is at odds with their entire business model. Movie theaters are basically just eateries where you can watch Vin Diesel do stuff while you cram junk food in your face. Theaters make very little from the actual box office, with the studio cut averaging to about 70% of the ticket price. The only way for theatres to make any money is to sell concessions at an inflated price. And with reduced seating capacity, it's doubtful that theaters would even break even without food sales. More likely, they would lose money.
As much as we want to get back to the movies and support the struggling theatre industry, their primary means of making money may actually impede audience safety. Even back during the 1918 flu pandemic, when movie theaters reopened their precautions "varied wildly," but generally, "all employees and patrons were required to wear masks at all times." So how are we somehow dumber than moviegoers from over a hundred years ago, when talkies weren't even a thing yet? Personally, I'd rather watch Poppy and Branch travel to Volcano Rock City to stop the wicked Queen Barb from assembling the six magical strings that turns everyone into zombies ... again.