AMC Theatres Reverses Re-Opening Policy, Will Now Require Guests To Wear Masks [Updated]

Update: Following outcry against AMC Theatres' statement that it would not require guests to wear masks, the theater chain is now reversing course and mandating all guests wear masks at their venues.AMC Theatres, the largest movie theater chain in the world, has set plans to re-open most of its venues by mid-July after being shut down for nearly four months due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Like fellow major theater chains Cinemark and Regal that are slowly re-opening, AMC Theatres will be reducing seating capacity and implementing new cleaning procedures. But despite the still-ongoing threat of the pandemic, AMC Theatres' re-opening plans do not include mandatory face masks.Variety reports that AMC Theatres has unveiled its plans to open more than 600 venues in the U.S., with operations expected to resume in 450 of those locations on July 15 and be almost fully operational by the time Disney's Mulan opens on July 24 and Warner Bros.' Tenet hits on July 31.

Like its fellow exhibitors Cinemark and Regal, AMC Theatres will be implementing new guidelines to ensure the health and safety of their audiences, including reduced seating capacity to help social distancing, extra time between screenings to allow for disinfection, new cleaning procedures, placing hand-sanitizing stations throughout its theaters, and encouraging contact-less and cash-free concessions. AMC partnered with The Clorox Company and Harvard's School of Public Health to help establish these new procedures, which recommended deploying electrostatic sprayers, HEPA vacuums and upgraded MERV 13 ventilation filters.

But, unfortunately, also like its fellow exhibitors, AMC Theatres will not mandate its guests wear masks. Instead, masks are only "encouraged" for guests, while employees will be required to wear them. AMC will not perform temperature checks on customers either, though it will monitor and screen employees' temperatures. Why is this a potential issue? Studies have shown that widespread use of face masks will dramatically reduce the spread of coronavirus, and if just 80% of Americans wore masks while going out in public, the number of infections would plummet. But AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron notes in a statement to Variety that masks have become a "political" issue in the U.S., with protests taking place across the country against state governments' mandating of face coverings.

"We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy. We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary. We think that the vast majority of AMC guests will be wearing masks. When I go to an AMC feature, I will certainly be wearing a mask and leading by example."

AMC not mandating masks potentially puts its customers at risk, as even those who are cautious and wear masks could risk infection if another person does not wear a mask. Couple that with the indoor nature of moviegoing, where most transmission takes place, and you've got a recipe for disaster. But movie theater chains are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the issue of masks — exhibitors, especially AMC, have been hit particularly hard financially by the pandemic and are under great pressure to bring back customers or risk going out of business. AMC itself has been on the verge of bankruptcy, and it's not even certain that reopening in July will be enough to keep them in business. With theaters heavily relying on concessions to make their money, masks would be a clear hindrance. But why not take advantage of the monetary benefit that could be made from selling masks? Variety reports AMC plans to sell masks for a dollar to guests who forgot one, but could it not replace the money that comes from concessions?

Aron's statement still feels wildly irresponsible, as does AMC Theatres' plans to go full speed ahead in increasing capacity in its theaters. AMC plans to increase capacity in stages, selling tickets for only 30% capacity before increasing to 40% and then 50% capacity. At this rate, AMC hopes to have auditoriums half-full by Labor Day with full capacity by Thanksgiving. But while coronavirus cases are falling in former epicenters like New York, states like Florida and Arizona, which re-opened their businesses early, are seeing a rise in cases, and if that continues, it's not good news for businesses like AMC Theatres.