‘We’re in survival mode’: Movie theaters reopen with pandemic precautions after being shuttered for months

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For the Norton family, it’s their first trip back.

“Since the theaters are just recently reopened back up, we thought, well let’s give it a shot,” said Tyler Norton of Hopkins. “We just thought it’s just kind of a way to ease back into the movie scene.”

It’s also a first for many area movie theaters this weekend — people in their seats.

Emagine theaters have been open for a couple of weeks, and AMC locations opened their doors just days ago.

The Nortons, arriving at the Emagine Willow Creek theater in Plymouth, say they’re just happy to see a big screen again.

“This is something we all like to do together,” said Liz Norton of St. Louis Park. “To sit around the living room and try to watch a movie is just not always the same."

Movie fans at Willow Creek will see plenty of pandemic changes: mandatory mask-wearing, sanitizer stations, social-distancing floor stickers and shut-down drinking fountains.

"Health and safety is going to be at the forefront of being reopened,” said Justin Miguel, the theater’s general manager. “So I want to make sure our guests and our employees will feel safe."

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That means no more box office. Patrons now reserve numbered safe-distance seats online or with an app.

"It’ll automatically block off two seats to the right or left of you or your group,” Miguel said. “And that’s going to help maintain the 6-feet distance between guests.”

There will be deep-cleaning of seats and high-touch areas after each show. Employees are masked and gloved, and, yes, there will be concessions.

Tyler Norton says he’s not too worried about safety.

"You know you’re wearing your mask unless you’re eating,” he said. “The basic hand-washing and that kind of stuff you do normally, I don’t think it gets better than that."

But for all the precautions, some movie theaters are still struggling.

Miguel says he’s expecting about 150 patrons on Saturday. That’s compared to about 1,500 to 2,000 customers before the pandemic.

"We’re probably seeing a 90% decrease in sales,” he said. “We’re not getting the same amount of foot traffic coming through the doors, we’re not seeing the same kind of attendances like we normally see."

The $50 billion movie theater industry is hoping to turn things around with upcoming releases like "Tenet."

But there’s still competition from in-home streaming services.

Netflix, for example, has announced it gained 15 million new subscribers during the pandemic.

"It’s more comfortable I guess. You don’t have to get into your car and drive ten minutes to the theater,” Allison Norton said. “You’ve got everything there. If you need to go to the bathroom, you walk two steps. It’s just a lot easier.”

Besides the safety precautions, Emagine Willow Creek is also discounting its tickets: $5 for adults and $3 for children.

Miguel says believes his theater — and the patrons — will come back but that it may take some time.

"We’re in survival mode,” he said. “We’re not fully recovered yet. It’s going to take some time, but once we get those new products coming in, you know, I think we’ll be able to recover from this."