SEATTLE — A few hours before I drove to the Cinemark at Lincoln Square in Bellevue last Sunday, my editor forwarded a disconcerting email from a reader dismayed by "beyond horrifying" COVID precautions at another Seattle-area movie theater.
According to the email, attendees at a recent "Tenet" matinee at Pacific Place were allowed to choose seats without regard for their assigned spots or social distancing; the reader moved four times to avoid sitting in front of, behind or next to another moviegoer.
Grant from Capitol Hill did not mince words in his review.
"For an organization that hasn't seen a dollar in five months you would think that they would have an inkling as to what has been happening in 2020," he wrote. "If I had my choice I would shut them down completely pending a thorough examination as to how they do business."
(Per AMC's Safe & Clean policy, purchasing a seat automatically blocks the surrounding seats. By press time, AMC had not responded to a request for comment on enforcement of distance-minded seating rules.)
With some theaters in Greater Seattle — AMC, Cinemark, local chain Far Away Entertainment — having reopened in response to loosened coronavirus restrictions in Washington state, would-be moviegoers are wondering if big-screen flicks are worth the risk. Is there such a thing as safe moviegoing in a world without a coronavirus vaccine? How will social distancing be enforced, if at all? Will folks keep their masks on during an activity intrinsically tied to snacking?
The University District AMC was my first neighborhood hangout when I moved to Seattle last October. The A-List — three movies per week for $20 per month — was invaluable during the rainy season. Point being: Watching good, bad and ugly movies was a go-to prepandemic treat for me. But even as cinemas reopen with COVID-era guidelines, the threat of infection and a depleted roster of blockbusters has me hesitant to go back.
Here's what I found when I returned to the movies for the first time since ... The Before.
At Cinemark last weekend, the theater replaced posters for blockbuster movies with proclamations of coronavirus guidelines. There was a guest safety checklist — masks required except when eating or drinking, contactless payment and ticketing, social distancing rules, etc. — plus cheeky, movie-themed posters to the same effect. "I'LL BE BACK ... IN 30 MINUTES" is written above an outline of the Terminator with a spray bottle, representing bathroom cleanings every half-hour; Rocky Balboa proclaims "WE'VE TRAINED FOR THIS," and Wonder Woman explains that "A LITTLE DISTANCE CAN WORK WONDERS." The signs outnumbered the hand sanitizer bottles scattered throughout the lobby, but not by much.
The employee manning the box office was so excited about being back at work that his mask kept creeping up his chin (fear not, he diligently adjusted it). I explained that I hadn't checked the listings; he immediately recommended "Tenet" and gushed about his anticipation for the latest Christopher Nolan movie. We talked through the hype that surrounded "Inception" in 2010, trading theories about whether or not Leo ever made it out of limbo. We agreed to disagree that my favorite Nolan film, "Interstellar," forsakes emotion for an intricate plot.