East Valley to soon see an open movie house The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

East Valley to soon see an open movie house

East Valley to soon see an open movie house
Business
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By Kevin Reagan
Tribune Staff Writer

The Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas in Tempe, Chandler and Gilbert will soon start screening films again – six months after multiplexes were forced to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And Harkins announced its reopening of long-shuttered theaters as of last Friday.

While AMC Theaters gave no indication on its corporate website, both Alamo and Harkins will begin special showings tomorrow, Aug. 31, of what was supposed to be this summer’s first big summer blockbuster – Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.”  Cinemark also is reopening.

But if you’re planning to take in that flick – or any others – be prepared to wear a mask.

Unless you’re eating popcorn or some other munchies, you’ll have to wear one. Otherwise, you’ll have to either wait until Maricopa County relaxes its mask mandate – something not likely any time soon – or just go back to Netflix.

The Arizona Department of Health Services last week gave the green light to Alamo’s and Harkins’ safety plans for reopening as the state weighs reopening requests from hundreds of theaters, bars and gyms.

“That was a big step,” said Craig Paschich, co-owner of Alamo’s three theaters in Arizona. The Chandler and Gilbert locations are expected to reopen in a week or two.

Harkins and Alamo were among more than 102 venues, gyms and bars approved for reopening early last week. Out of the 800 businesses that initially applied for reopening, at least 202 have been turned down.

With benchmarks showing fewer cases of COVID-19 in Maricopa County, gyms and fitness centers to reopen at 25 percent capacity. But they are required to provide the state Health Services Department with an attestation of compliance with its safety protocols and post that in a visible site on their premises. More information is at azhealth.gov.

The department issued an announcement encouraging people to report violators to either the state or county health department or even local police.

It’s trickier for bars.

Only those that convert to “restaurant service’’ can reopen.

That means customers must be escorted to tables, groups limited to no more than 10, no standing or mingling, and limited waiting areas.

And forget dancing.

Paschich said the application process with DHS was relatively straightforward and not too burdensome. 

Patrons can expect to see many changes at all three locations as Alamo Drafthouse adapts to protocols to protect staff and patrons from the coronavirus.

Staff and customers will be required to wear masks inside the theaters, but can remove them while eating popcorn or other items.

Stickers will be placed on the floors of the cinema’s bathrooms to instruct visitors how to navigate the common space without getting too close to others.

The Alamo theatres are part of a national chain of cinemas known for their large screening rooms that allow for guests to order food and be served alcohol during the show.

Arizona’s Alamo locations will initially offer a scaled-down version of their food and beverage menu, Paschich said, and customers will be given disposable paper menus.

Alamo’s online ticketing system will automatically place a two-seat buffer between every group of customers in order to ensure guests are seated at least six feet from each other at all times.

If a guest starts to feel ill during a screening and needs to leave, Alamo says it will refund the patron’s ticket.

Similar protocols are being introduced by Harkins.

“There is no question that this has been the most difficult time in my 50 plus years in the business. I am so excited and so appreciative of our incredible team and tremendously loyal guests that have continued to support us through this challenging time,” said Dan Harkins, owner of the theaters that bears his family’s name.

Both Paschich and Harkins President/CEO Mike Bowers said reopening is not only good news for them but for moviegoers numbed by the wave of pandemic-related news in recent months.

“In trying times, people have always looked to us to escape for just a few hours of solace and to immerse themselves in another world,” said Bowers.

Harkins said its new protocols “will meet or exceed uniform guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, governmental health authorities and the National Association of Theatre Owners so that guests can sit back, relax, and get lost in the magic of the movies.”

Harkins is adding enhanced cleaning and sanitizing, daily health checks for staff, social distance seating between every pair of seats and reduced audience capacity and showtimes.

Harkins Loyalty Cups will be refilled with a new paper cup and all other refills on paper drink and popcorn containers will be discontinued until further notice.

Along with hand sanitizers throughout its theaters, Harkins also has installed increased fresh air, hospital-grade MERV 13 air filters and HEPA filtered vacuums in all auditoriums

The state has allowed the theaters to open at 25 percent of their normal capacity, Paschich said, and he hopes the business can gradually expand up to 50 percent in the following weeks.

The benefit of running a movie house, Paschich added, is that owners get to set their own schedule and decide how many movies they want to screen – thus controlling the number of guests they have at any time.

“We can really make sure we don’t have a lot of guests there at one time to make sure we don’t have a lot of people in the common areas,” Paschich said.

Alamo will disinfect each screening room every night with a special sanitation chemical and staff will be trained to regularly clean surfaces in between showtimes throughout the day.

Alamo also is assigning one employee to a special position it calls “the lobby mayor,” who will be responsible for guiding guests around common areas and maintaining traffic flow.

In a way, closing theaters made little difference for movie fans since blockbusters were already moved to late this year and even next.

Hollywood started cancelling or delaying the release of many highly-anticipated films in mid-March and eventually resorted to releasing some movies through video-on-demand services. 

When the state shut down in March, Paschich said he expected the moratorium to maybe last only a couple months and theaters would be open again by summer.

“We never thought it was going to be six months,” he said. “It’s been really rough.”

Alamo managed to obtain some financial aid from the government’s COVID-19 relief funds and has spent the last few months renegotiating leases with its landlords.

Yet the pandemic’s economic impacts were still severe enough to prompt Alamo to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protections a couple months ago. The business said back in May it was going to use the bankruptcy filing as a chance to reorganize its finances and plan ahead for the future.

Meanwhile, AMC on Aug. 21 reopened more than 100 movie theaters in 17 states and the District of Columbia but Arizona is not among them.

Only several months ago, reports said that the pandemic had crippled AMC worldwide.

“AMC is carrying billions in debt and has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for months,” The Hollywood Reporter said two months ago of the nation’s largest movie chain.

In the theaters it has opened, AMC has announced new safety equipment and protocols almost identical to those of Harkins.

Information: drafthouse.com, harkins.com, amc.com.

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