SAN ANTONIO – It happened early in the cool, dark cineplex, before Vin Diesel even had the chance to become superhuman, while people sat snacking on popcorn and sipping sodas in their plush reclining seats.
Someone was coughing.
If anyone sitting nearby was alarmed, no one would show it. The cough seemed to be stifled: the cinephile was wearing a mask – part of the label recommended to go to the movies in the middle of a pandemic.
On Saturday, three theaters in the San Antonio area became among the first in the country to reopen, a move that worried some infectious disease experts but was applauded by those who bought tickets and went to the show.
Santikos Entertainment opened three theaters, offering reduced prices, a limited food menu, masks and greetings that opened doors when people entered, limiting contact with door handles.
Theaters were showing older versions for $ 5, and at Palladium, in an upscale mall called Rim, business was stable – weak for a Saturday in May, but higher than you would expect in a state grappling with an epidemic of coronavirus that has killed nearly 900 people, 48 of them in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio.
Cinemas, like restaurants, were allowed to sit only 25 percent of their listed capacity.
Grady McClung and his wife Rachel arrived at 1:10 pm screening of the Christian film “I Still Believe” at the Palladium, each wearing a mask.
“Yesterday was my birthday, so I got the first two tickets for the first opening of the first movie in the first movie theater,” said McClung, 51, project manager for a telecommunications company living in Boerne, nearby. “There are around 12 seats in a 150-seat auditorium. We are well spaced. ”
Sitting in a theater with dozens of foreigners was a walk on the wild side of public health. But as the movies played and the intrigue thickened in the midst of the crunch-crunch of customers chewing popcorn, Hollywood was doing what it had been doing for decades: offering an escape, albeit hidden and remotely.
Mr. McClung and others at the theater said that before purchasing their tickets, they had researched the company’s measures to keep people safe and were convinced that they were not making plans. danger. Going to the movies, some of them said, brought back a much-needed touch of normalcy after weeks of quarantine.
“If you feel like you’re afraid, then it’s fine, and you’re not going out,” said McClung. “But other people have to get their lives back. We didn’t go to the movies all the time. I mean, probably five or six a year. But it was something that was right for now. “
On the afternoon of the screening of the action-adventure film Vin Diesel “Bloodshot”, moviegoers kept their distance, sitting two, three or four seats apart. Some wore masks, and others wore them in the hall, but kidnapped them in the auditorium to eat popcorn.
In row F, the company mistakenly placed three guests in F1, F2 and F3, almost shoulder to shoulder. F2 went down to F7 to ensure social distancing.
Tim Handren, general manager of Santikos Entertainment, said the company takes employee and customer safety seriously and goes beyond state health requirements.
“We follow, we believe, the best guidelines we can to open safely,” Handren said in a YouTube message to the public.
Masks were recommended, but not required, for customers. In the Palladium hall, a masked worker asked customers when they entered, whether they or anyone they came in contact with had a fever, chills, or other symptoms in the past 14 days. The signs warned that if the answer was yes, they would not be allowed in and the cost of their tickets would be reimbursed.
The cashiers stood behind plexiglass shields. At least 75% of the seats in each auditorium remained unsold. Many doors have been left open so that people do not have to touch them. Arcade games were closed and no money was accepted – those who had money exchanged their bills for gift cards.
“We are trying to minimize the number of touch points, where you could interact with, touch, things that we don’t need you to touch, or our employees,” Handren said in the video.
The company asked employees if they were comfortable going back to work before reopening, said Handren, and “our employees said resonantly,” We want to come back. ” Santikos had put employees on leave and kept its theaters closed for more than 40 days.
Handren said the company is unlikely to be make money on low capacity programming, but recognized that people had to get out of their homes and “go somewhere else.”
That said, business was booming: by early evening, the Palladium had sold 800 tickets and was still receiving customers without an appointment.
Infectious disease experts have expressed concern that Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to include theaters in the first phase of the state’s partial reopening is risky.
“You are not going to catch me in a theater anytime soon,” said Dr. Diana Cervantes, infection prevention and control expert and assistant professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, a medical school in Fort. Worth.
“When you think about what facilitates transmission, it will be the type of contact you have with the infected person, the duration, the proximity – all of these factors come into play. sit with a group of strangers. “
Joe Garcia, 74, a retired military chaplain in camouflage mask, said he had no health problems. He printed a copy of the theater security procedures and brought it with him.
He and his family have a long tradition: once a week, they take his 41-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy, to the movies, one of his main social outings. The tradition had been put on hold during the coronavirus lockdown.
Mr. Garcia, his daughter and his other daughter, Karla Ross, 51, attended at 4:10 pm showing “I still believe. “
It was the first time in six weeks that Mr. Garcia, who lives in Blanco, saw Ms. Ross, who lives in San Antonio, because Mr. Garcia’s age makes him more vulnerable to the virus than others.
For their day back at the movies, he had no worries.
“We feel safe,” he said.