Movie theaters, for now, stay open nationwide

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MTVA - Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund

A sole spectator watches a film in a movie theatre in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, March 12, 2020. Effective from today, cinemas in Hungary are restricted to sell a maximum of 99 tickets for a show as the Hungarian government declared a state of emergency in response to the novel coronavirus, and prohibited all indoor events with more than 100 participants and outdoor events attended by more than 500 participants. (Marton Monus/MTI via AP)

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Movie theaters have long acted as a refuge in times of war and recession. Their screens have flickered virtually unabated for the last century. But the coronavirus presents a rare case and an acute crisis for a medium already under threat by the advent of streaming services.

With few exceptions, movie theaters across North America are remaining open while Broadway theaters, sports arenas and museums close their doors to help curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

While Hollywood studios have canceled most upcoming films, this weekend is going forward with a slate of new releases and holdovers. The largest chains are all operating, though some theaters are taking unusual precautions.

To counter the spread of the coronavirus, the Alamo Drafthouse is instituting “seat separation” policies, along with extra cleaning of theaters in between showing. The theater chain is requesting each group of moviegoers leave empty seats to their sides, a measure also enacted by Northern Ireland's largest exhibitor, Omniplex. The World Health Organization has suggested maintaining a meter (or about three feet) distance between people.

Theaters are also adjusting to bans on large gatherings, in some cases closing bigger theaters or limiting the number of maximum ticket buyers per screen.

AMC Theaters and Regal Cinemas, the country's two largest chains, on Friday each said they would fill their theaters no more than 50%. AMC said it would begin the policy Saturday and keep it until the end of April to help facilitate social distancing. In larger auditoriums, the chain will no longer sell more than 250 tickets for a showing.

The bans against large crowds vary across the country and are rapidly changing, forcing different strategies for movie theaters in various parts of the country. California's ban prohibits more than 250 people in a single space. New York's limits gatherings to 500. Ohio puts its number at 100 people. More states are likely to enact further bans in the near future, as governments work to constrict transmission of the virus.

Just where cinemas fit into the growing retreat isn't as clear as some other cases. Movie theaters can be IMAX screens that accommodate masses or art-house theaters that aren't larger than a restaurant. In New York, movie theaters at Lincoln Center, MoMA and Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester have shuttered. But theaters around even outbreak hotspots like Seattle, Washington, and New Rochelle, New York, have continued to operate, including a Regal theater in New Rochelle.