San Luis Obispo County’s recent move to the COVID-19 red tier — which is the second most restrictive tier on the California Blueprint for a Safer Economy — allows for movie theaters to open at 25 percent capacity, but the cost of operating with restrictions outweighs potential revenue, according to local movie theater managers.
Palm Theatre in downtown San Luis Obispo is one cinema that will not be opening in the foreseeable future, according to manager Meg Higdon.
“Even though the tier system would allow us to, Jim doesn’t think it is a good idea for us,” Higdon said.
Jim Dee, owner of Palm Theatre and Cal Poly alumni, made the decision out of concern for patrons of the cinema, who he said are typically in the high-risk demographic for COVID-19.
The variety of shared surfaces that would require constant disinfecting and lack of a well-ventilated space are two contributing concerns, Higdon said.
“No matter how cautious we are, it still seems risky, and not worth the cost of operation,” she said.
Palm Theatre was the first movie theater in the United States to be solar-powered, and it is that design that has allowed the theater to maintain caution in reopening. The solar panels on the roof of the Palm generate power that can be sold back to the electric company.
This setup grants the theater the financial security to not have to fear closing down long-term, according to Higdon.
“I still think this pandemic will have a lasting effect on the movie industry. Hopefully it will be a Renaissance for small indie theaters like ours,” Higdon said.
Political science junior Mason Zeller was once a regular customer of Palm Theatre before they closed due to COVID-19.
“I like to go to independent theaters to support independent movies — that’s the main reason I go,” Zeller said.
Zeller said his tendency to watch indie films has not changed, despite moving from theaters to streaming services during the pandemic. He said hi new habit has been to search for independent movies on streaming platforms and watch them from the comfort of his own home.
Zeller recently traveled home to Kansas City and attended a showing at a movie theater, but he said that the theater was “practically empty.”
“A lot of people aren’t ready to go back, and I don’t think I’m really ready either,” Zeller said. “At the same time, there isn’t anything like the experience of going to a movie theater and watching a film on the big screen.”
Galaxy Theatres in Atascadero is one cinema that will be opening in San Luis Obispo County. The theater has implemented guidelines from the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) to open safely, according to Galaxy’s general manager Loren Kaplan.
“We are operating under CinemaSafe standards, plus all the CDC guidelines,” Kaplan said. “We want to provide a safe environment for our guests and staff.”
A few CinemaSafe protocols include mandated mask use for all employees and guests, enforced social distancing among patrons and staff, air filtration requirements, mobile ticketing, more frequent cleanings of auditoriums between screenings and mandated employee health training, according to an August press release from NATO.
Galaxy Theatre reopened on Oct. 9, but it will not resume normal showings yet, Kaplan said. Instead, the theater will be offering a rental space for private parties.
“Studios are not releasing any new content, so we don’t have any movies to play,” Kaplan said. “A lot of theaters are playing older movies and doing that at a discounted rate.”
Selling lower-priced tickets for only 25 percent capacity is a gamble that makes it difficult for theaters to cover costs, and the industry is finding that expenses are quickly outgrowing revenue, Kaplan said.