While the big movie theater chains remain closed, two local independent theaters continue welcoming film buffs.
In March, the coronavirus pandemic forced most theaters to shutter because of social distancing requirements. When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam eased COVID-19 restrictions July 1, Westlake Cinema at Smith Mountain Lake and Venue Cinema jumped at the chance to reopen their doors.
They implemented new cleaning procedures, and because summer blockbusters have gone bust they started showing old favorites such as “Jurassic Park” and “Back to the Future.”
Thomas Althoff, general manager of Westlake Cinema in Hardy, said the theater originally closed March 17 and reopened four months later July 17 — two weeks into Phase 3. He waited the extra two weeks to make adjustments inside the cinema and make sure the theater met the standards set by the state.
The building, like many others, has social-distancing markings to separate people, and it uses caution tape to mark off seats and rows in the auditorium.
It is also cleaning every hour and after each movie showing. Employees undergo health screenings before starting their shifts. Though Althoff can allow 50% capacity, he is allowing a little less to be safe.
Theaters also are getting creative while Hollywood isn’t releasing the usual summer hits.
“Disney and Universal Pictures and studios like that need the numbers from big cities to make those movies worth the money they put into them, and if they’re not releasing them, we can’t show them,” he said.
The cinema is playing some movies released decades ago, some released earlier in the year and others from smaller, independent studios.
However, he said the cinema isn’t bringing in nearly the amount of customers it normally would during the summer.
“It’s been a low turnout,” he said. “It was really low the first week but we put up more advertising to get the word out locally, mostly through Facebook, and we put some banners up on the highway letting people know we were open.”
Customers have consisted of mostly families and a few devoted regulars.
“People are still concerned about safety, which is understandable,” he said. “I think we’re taking the right steps to make sure everyone is safe but it’s just going to take some time for everybody to find their own comfort level in this new environment.”
Michele Harrison, general manager of Venue Cinemas on Lakeside Drive in Lynchburg, said employees used the time as an opportunity to deep-clean the entire building after it closed March 18 but continued to sell concessions curbside.
The building reopened July 10 and can allow 50% capacity — but Harrison said crowds haven’t been an issue yet.
“It’s been extremely slow since opening; we haven’t had a problem overselling tickets,” she said.
She thinks people still are nervous to sit in an enclosed theater for two hours while others are unaware the business has reopened.
The theater requires all employees and customers to wear masks while in the theater unless they are consuming food or drink.
Plexiglass has been installed at the ticket and concession booth and the game area has been closed off. Harrison said bathrooms, auditoriums and touch points such as door handles are cleaned throughout the day.
“I think we’re doing everything as well as everyone else; you walk in here and everything is clean,” she said.
The largest theater in the Lynchburg region, Regal Cinemas, located inside River Ridge mall plans to reopen Aug. 21.
Richard Grover, vice president of communications for Regal Cinemas, said in a news release the theaters would enforce health and safety measures that adhere to the latest CDC and public health guidelines. That includes sanitation procedures, new social distancing protocols and mandatory mask policies for employees and guests.
The theater will feature contactless payment and employees will sanitize every auditorium and seat after each showing.
“Welcoming theatergoers back to our cinemas will be a celebration for not only our team and our industry, but most importantly for the fans who have been anxiously awaiting the year’s upcoming releases,” Mooky Greidinger, CEO of Cineworld, the owner of Regal Cinemas, said. “With the health and safety of our staff, customers and communities as our top priority, we are happy to invite audiences to return to the timeless theatrical experience that we have all dearly missed.”
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