Now that our governor is finished with her shark week, perhaps she can bite into a small but persistent inequity in our COVID-19 shutdowns that, frankly, has gone on too long.
They have been closed in Michigan, with the exception of the Traverse City and Upper Peninsula regions, for nearly six months, since the earliest days of our pandemic response. Many want to know why. We have reopened stores. Reopened bars. Reopened restaurants. Reopened casinos. We’ve even reopened hair and nail salons, where customer and employee by definition come in close contact with each other.
Yet movie theaters remain shuttered, and players in the local industry claim they have never been given a real reason, despite frequent pleas for relief.
“I think that was really the root of my frustration,” says Paul Glantz, chairman of Emagine Entertainment, which operates 10 theaters in the state. “I felt like if we were closed for all this time, we were entitled to understand what differentiated movie theaters from other venues.”
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It’s a good question. Because, if you think about it, the biggest issues of virus spread are more easily addressed in movie theaters than in many entities which already have a green light.
Take social distancing. Movie theaters have an easy solution: Don’t sell seats to different parties closer than 6 feet apart. Boom. Done. And since the act of watching a movie is generally a sit-still-for-2-hours activity, there’s far less chance of interaction, even casual, than at a restaurant, bar or casino.
Also, what’s the biggest risk we are constantly warned about with COVID-19? Prolonged exposure to someone breathing virus-tinged droplets in your direction. This comes mostly from 1) loud conversation; 2) singing; 3) heavy breathing. The first two are not even allowed in movie theaters and the third is hardly common there, no matter how exciting a film gets.
Let’s face it. You drive up. You go in. You get your seats. You sit quietly. Maybe you buy popcorn and drinks – all while wearing masks, no different than going to a McDonald’s – and when you’re done, you go back to your car.
Compared to offices, bars or food places, there is minimal conversation. Compared to getting hair or nails done, it’s hardly a close encounter.
So why do locks remain on theater doors?
“I appreciate the job the governor has,” says Jon Goldstein, who owns Maple Theater and Riviera Cinema in metro Detroit. “I think it’s a difficult job, especially in a pandemic, and she’s done really good work in protecting us. But I think she’s missed the boat in a couple of places, and one of them is theaters. I think she must think we want to open to packed houses of people, all sitting together. That’s not the way we want to do it.
“We spent a lot of time, like she says, gathering data and talking to experts, everything she advocated. Yet we haven’t been able to break through. It makes you wonder what’s going on. You still get your property tax bills from your government municipalities. How do they expect me to pay those is if they won’t let me open?”
Goldstein’s case feels more acute because, like Glantz, he also co-owns theaters in Minnesota, which were allowed to open in mid-June. In fact, more than 40 states now have movie theaters open in various stages. Goldstein says in two months of operating in Minnesota, there have been zero instances of COVID-19 spread, zero complaints, and zero problems with state officials.
“The local health department officials do come in,” he says. “They look around. They see what we’re doing. They say this is fine.”
So why not in Michigan? Perhaps those in charge envision “Star Wars” openings, people packing in seats, awkwardly edging past one another, back and forth, lines in bathrooms and concession stands. But that level of business is not being proposed – and frankly, won’t be happening for a long time.
According to a recent survey conducted by Morning Consult, a market research company, only around 17% of consumers say they feel comfortable…