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Movie theaters begin reopening with lower capacity

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If sitting in a dark room to be entertained with a bucket of popcorn and an oversize container of soda in your lap is your idea of a good time, you’re in luck.

Harkins Theaters, the state’s largest chain of theaters announced August 25 that it will be opening its doors August 28 at virtually all of its Arizona theaters. That comes just days after the company said it would begin seating patrons in Prescott Valley, Flagstaff and Sedona.

But the experience won’t be quite the same as it was before.

It starts with face coverings, which will be required of both employees and guests. The only exception will be eating and drinking – and only while seated.

There will be more room between couples and families and others, with reserved seating similar to what the AMC chain already was doing before the shutdown.

Overall capacity will be at 50% with the lone exception of the company’s theater in Yuma. There the state is permitting just 25% of the seats to be filled because that county’s infection rate remains higher than elsewhere.

And even that plastic cup that entitles “loyalty” members to reduced-price drinks all year will be honored with beverages dispensed into disposable cups instead. And there will be special lines at the concession stands for “touchless” transactions with credit cards only.

The company also has promised to install safety shields, put sanitizer stations throughout the theaters and install what it says are “hospital grade air filters” and provide increased fresh air circulation. There also will be daily screenings of workers for virus symptoms.

It also is staggering the start times for shows to reduce crowding.

Harkins along with all other Arizona theaters closed in late March when Gov. Doug Ducey said that only “essential businesses” could remain open.

He eased up on the rules in May when he ended his stay-at-home orders.

But those changes resulted in a massive spike in COVID-19 infections. So the governor in late June shut the doors on them again, along with gyms, fitness centers, tubing and water parks.

The current rules in place allow reopening – but only at 50% capacity in the five counties where the spread of the virus has been reduced from “substantial” to “moderate.” State health officials believe that Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties will hit that level by the end of the week.

Those orders, though, allowed individual theaters to petition to reopen if they could show they can operate safely, even in counties where the risk of the virus remains high.

The addition of the Harkins chain to what can be opened is a major development.

Until August 25, the state Department of Health Services had agreed to provide waivers to only four theaters not located in the five counties where businesses can reopen: the Invisible Theater in Tucson and the Alamo theaters in Chandler, Tempe and Gilbert. And it had rejected a bid to reopen by the Sawmill Theatre in Payson.

AMC Theatres, the other big Arizona player, has not announced any Arizona reopenings.

Harkins already has a full lineup planned as it – and Hollywood – seeks to salvage what it can of the summer movie going season.

One major release is “The New Mutants,” anticipated to be the last installment of the Marvel Comics X-Men film series.

There also will be showings of the new Russell Crowe film “Unhinged” as well as the more family friendly animated “Sonic the Hedgehog” about an extraterrestrial blue hedgehog who can run at supersonic speeds.

And the chain is promoting “early access screenings” of “Tenet” starting on August 31, the new Christopher Nolan spy film.

But there also will be some oldies in the batch, including a 10-year anniversary showing of “Inception.”

There is at least one exception to the Harkins opening. There are no films yet announced for the Valley Art theater in Tempe.

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