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As Maryland reopens, some movie theater operators ask: When is it our turn?

The new Horizon Cinemas movie theater, built in the former Mars supermarket in the Aberdeen Marketplace shopping center.
The new Horizon Cinemas movie theater, built in the former Mars supermarket in the Aberdeen Marketplace shopping center. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The owner of a local chain of movie theaters is calling on Gov. Larry Hogan to reopen film houses in Maryland.

Joel Wienholt, who operates the five Horizon Cinemas in the Baltimore area, argues that a public health analysis prepared for governors shows that theaters are at a lower risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus than other organizations such as churches and bars that have been allowed to resume operations.

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“We’ve been closed for three months, and it’s been a complete struggle to stay afloat,” Wienholt said.

“Summer is our busiest time, with kids being out of school. We’re a locally owned family business, and our livelihood is at stake.”

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Wienholt is among a number of local theater awaiting a green light to reopen. However, Maryland officials and a public health expert say it’s not wise to take the risk yet for an entertainment venue.

Wienholt pointed to a report by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that analyzed the risks of reopening dozens of indoor and outdoor activities. The report is intended to provide guidance for governors as they begin the complicated process of returning their states to what was considered normal life before the pandemic.

The guidelines evaluate activities on three criteria: the total number of contacts involved, the intensity of those contacts (are they close-up or distant, brief or lengthy) and the potential for implementing modifications that could reduce risks.

For instance, places of worship and bars are characterized as having high attendance, high-intensity contacts and a medium potential to modify the perils. The category of “theaters, museums, and other indoor leisure spaces” also has high attendance, but medium contact intensity and a medium potential for modification, the report found.

But churches have been permitted to have indoor services at 50% capacity since mid-May. Bars recently began serving patrons indoors, though they also can reopen at 50% capacity.

As of 5 p.m. Friday, several Baltimore establishments, including museums, libraries and the National Aquarium, may also reopen as long as they’re never more than half full, according to an order by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

“We believe we are as safe or safer than than casinos, gyms, bowling alleys, restaurants and some of the other businesses opening Friday,” Wienholt said.

“We were expecting to open with the wave of businesses that pay the Admissions and Amusement tax. But we were specifically excluded, and we don’t know why. We are just looking for fair treatment.”

Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer of the trade group the National Association of Theatre Owners, thinks that Maryland movie theater owners are being unfairly penalized.

“If you look at the guidelines put out by Johns Hopkins and by the CDC [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], movie theaters are consistently seen as right in the middle and as consistently posing a lower risk than churches,” he said.

“What movie theaters are saying is that businesses with similar risk factors should be treated the same way. We don’t think that’s what’s happening right now.”

Movie theaters have already begun to open nationwide, with the largest concentration of venues west of the Mississippi River. (Delaware is the state nearest Maryland to have theaters with indoor screenings.)

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Internationally, China has mostly kept its theaters locked up since the outbreak began. The United Kingdom’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced Tuesday that movie theaters there would reopen July 4.

AMC Entertainment Holdings, the world’s largest movie theater operator, is hoping that when it reopens its theaters nationwide on July 15, it can also show films at its Maryland outlets.

The organization announced Friday on Twitter that customers will be required to wear masks inside the theater — reversing statements made just one day earlier by Adam Aron, the company’s chief executive officer in an interview with Variety.

“It is absolutely crucial that we listen to our guests,” the tweet reads. “With the full support of our scientific advisors, we are reversing course and are changing our guest mask policy. We now will require that all AMC guests nationwide wear masks as they enter and enjoy movies at our theatres.”

Michael Ricci, the governor’s director of communications, said that it‘s too soon to reopen movie theaters. He wrote in an email:

“Health officials have advised us that these types of seated venues, where you can’t easily or politely always control who sits next to you or behind you or in your general area for a prolonged period are ... where the opportunities for spread may be higher, particularly given the length of time you may be sitting in one location. For now, we continue to watch the data closely as we move through our safe and phased reopenings.”

Though the report appears to conclude that movie theaters are less risky than other organizations that have reopened, Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security and one of the document’s 13 authors, agrees with Hogan that movie theaters should remain closed. The report made general recommendations across broad categories, she said, but couldn’t consider the nuances of individual businesses and circumstances.

“I don’t want to be this person who says, ‘No, no, no,‘” Sell said, “but reopening movie theaters seems like a bad idea. They have a lot of people indoors and in close contact for a long period of time. That just seems really tricky.”

She added that the benefits of participating in an individual activity should be weighed against potential perils.

“Gyms can have fewer people in them than movie theaters, and some of the risks of becoming infected with COVID-19 are reduced by staying active,” she said. “Churches can take mitigation efforts.

“But at the end of the day, these decisions are also about the value we place on different activities. Every new thing you do comes with added risks, and we have to decide if the value of that activity is worth the increase in risk. My kids have been out of school for the past three months. I think I’d be upset if we had movie theaters operating and my kids weren’t in school.”

A local theater operator said her industry shouldn’t be prevented from reopening just because they’re in the entertainment business.

“People who go to the movies are usually seated and looking straight ahead, said Sandra L. Gibson, executive director of The Parkway Theatre in Station North.

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“There’s very little talking. There isn’t the singing that there is in church. And there isn’t a lot of sweat and fluids moving through the air like there is in gyms.”

However, neither she nor another local theater owner, James “Buzz” Cusack, are ready to reopen their venues quite yet.

For Cusack, that’s partly because there aren’t many films available to screen in the two theaters he owns: the Charles Theatre in Station North and the Senator Theatre in Govans.

“Some big movies were supposed to open in July, but the distributors keep pushing the release dates back,” he said. “There’s no sense in reopening if no one will come.”

Still, Cusack expects his theaters to resume operations in four to six weeks and is planning on implementing such safety measures as contact-free ticketing, a staggered schedule of showtimes and reserved seating to provide social distancing.

Gibson hopes to offer outdoor screenings in August and is involved in discussions with the Maryland Stadium Authority and nature preserves. She is contemplating postponing indoor screenings until October or possibly even January.

That will give her time to institute safety procedures such as temperature checks before each shift for all employees and a regimen of deep cleaning of all seats between screenings.

Still, she’s looking forward to the day when she can once again welcome an audience inside the gorgeous 1915 Italianate movie palace that she operates.

“Am I interested in bringing people back to the theater?” Gibson said.

“Absolutely. There’s nothing like the excitement that’s generated when people are in the same space while sharing a story. There’s a connection that gets made in the conversations people have when they’re standing in line and after the film ends. We’re human beings and we crave that connection. I miss it.

“But we want to do it right.”

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