Penny Roy has taken her family to the movies twice since Smitty’s Cinema in Sanford reopened in mid-July, and she plans to go again.

She wanted a fun night out, for her and her children, but she also wanted to help a local small business struggling to survive. She went online first to read up on Smitty’s COVID-19 safety protocols and thought they made sense.

“There weren’t that many people there. I felt safe, I really had no concerns,” said Roy, 49, of Sanford. “It was fun, and I really wanted to do something to help make sure they’re still around when this is over.”

Movie fans have been trickling into Maine theaters since the state allowed them to reopen in July, buoyed by a desire to get out and see a flick on the big screen and satisfied that theaters are doing all they can to make patrons as safe as possible. Still, many movie patrons – as evidenced by attendance rates and through social media queries – have been staying away from indoor theaters, feeling that as long as the pandemic continues they’ll avoid coming in contact with strangers in indoor spaces. Health experts continue to advise people that outdoor activity presents less risk for contracting COVID-19 than indoor activity.

Only a handful of indoor theaters opened in Maine in July, including Smitty’s Cinema locations in Sanford, Topsham and Windham, Magic Lantern in Bridgton and Spotlight Cinemas in Skowhegan and Orono. Many more did not open, largely because Hollywood was slow to release new films, the kind of films that attract an audience. The theaters that did open have been showing mostly older films and fan favorites, like “E.T.” or the “Harry Potter” series.

Sharon Cook of Yarmouth at Smitty’s Cinema in Topsham: “We really missed the movies, and this is one activity we can do and feel pretty safe.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But with some big releases scheduled for late August and early September, a half dozen or so Maine theaters plan to open Friday, including the Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland, Cinemagic locations in Westbrook, Saco and South Portland, and Regal theaters in Brunswick and Augusta. All of those had announced earlier opening dates, then postponed. The nation’s biggest movie chain, AMC, is also opening this week and is trying to entice people back into theaters with 15 cent tickets Thursday, though there are no AMC theaters in Maine, according to the company website.

Flagship Cinemas – with locations in Auburn, Falmouth, Oxford, Thomaston, Waterville and Wells – are still closed, according to the company website. Messages sent to the Falmouth Flagship’s Facebook page asking for reopening information were not answered. The Nordica Theater in Freeport is also still closed, according to its Facebook page and to an automated message at the theater.

All the theaters now open, or opening, are required to follow a COVID-19 prevention checklist from the state that provides specific guidance on staffing, cleaning, social distancing, masks and more. Some of the specific guidance includes 6 feet between groups of guests, masks worn by staff and by patrons when not eating, and ensuring ventilation systems increase outside air circulation “as much as possible.”

HEALTH AND SAFETY

Some health experts say indoor movie theaters present less risk for COVID-19 than some other enclosed businesses, like gyms, bars or restaurants. People might be talking loudly to be heard over one another in a bar or restaurant and might not be wearing masks while seated at a restaurant. Both of these will lead to people expelling more respiratory particles, said Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California-Davis Children’s Hospital.

But Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for Maine Health, says she thinks it might be “slightly riskier” to go to an indoor theater than a restaurant because people are generally spending more time in a theater, a couple hours or more. And restaurants have doors and windows that allow fresh air to circulate while a movie theater relies on having a ventilation system in good working order. But she did say that the lack of talking lessens the risk at the movies.

Also, movie theaters usually have much higher ceilings than restaurants, meaning there’s more air for particles to dissipate, Blumberg said. And people are more likely to wear masks in a movie theater, both Mills and Blumberg pointed out. In restaurants in Maine, people are not required to wear masks while seated, and presumably, eating. In movie theaters, people are required to wear masks when not eating or drinking. So in theory, if someone is milking their Diet Coke and box of popcorn for the entire movie, the mask can stay off.

At Cinemagic, patrons “may remove their masks while seated during the show to enjoy their concessions and the theatrical experience,” wrote Zachary Adam, the company’s marketing director, in an email. At Smitty’s Cinema locations, which are also full-service restaurants, patrons are required to wear masks unless eating or drinking, said Albert Waitt, director of operations. Just as in a restaurant, patrons at Smitty’s can take off their masks while seated and eating and don’t have to re-attach their masks “presumably” between bites, Waitt wrote in an email. At the Nickelodeon, patrons will be expected to have masks on while seated, if not eating, said David Scott, the general manager.

“Will some people try to take advantage of the rule? Maybe,” said Scott. “But we have a responsibility to do this right. We’ll let people know what’s expected.”

Smitty’s Cinema in Topsham has been open since July 17. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

SMALL CROWDS, FEW WORRIES

A half dozen recent moviegoers interviewed for this story all said they felt safe and enjoyed their experience. Several said they recently saw films where only two or three other people were present, which added to a feeling of security. They all said people were wearing masks when not eating, and that everybody was spaced far enough apart.

Joann Bedillion of Waterville recently drove about an hour to the Smitty’s in Topsham with her husband to see two movies, “Jurassic Park” and “Trolls World Tour,” and they ate dinner during the second. She’s a big movie fan, and has missed not seeing films on the big screen and having a “date night” once in a while. She had been going to drive-in movies in the spring, then jumped at the chance to see a movie at Smitty’s when it opened.

Bedillion said she feels “there’s always a level of concern” when going anywhere indoors with other people during the pandemic, but she thinks the precautions at Smitty’s would keep her as safe as possible. The fact that a lot of people aren’t going to the movies right now helped her feeling of safety.

“There were only a couple other people, so we probably didn’t get within 20 feet of anyone else,” said Bedillion, 38. “We wore our masks until the food arrived. When the server came back, we put them on again.”

Rean McGinley of Madison, 75, is a self-described “movie freak” who has been going to movies regularly since she was 5. When the movie theaters reopened, she had already been to some indoor restaurants, saw what was being done there and felt that theaters could be just as safe. She’s been to Spotlight Cinemas in Skowhegan twice in the past month, and felt safe. The fact that people took off masks to eat popcorn didn’t bother her.

“It was a pretty big theater, with a balcony, so nobody was very close to me,” said McGinley. “If I walked into a movie theater right now, and it was mobbed, I might turn around and walk out.”

Outside of the Smitty’s in Topsham last week, Greg Lee of Yarmouth and his son, Timmy, were on their way to see their first indoor movie since the pandemic hit. They both welcomed the chance to do something “almost normal.”

A marquee above Nickelodeon Cinemas has a message to customers about their reopening plans. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“With him starting school again, and who knows what that will be like, it’s good to have something that feels almost normal, or like the new normal. This is an activity we used to do,” said Lee.

Also heading into Smitty’s last week was Sharon Cook of Yarmouth and son Colin. Cook said she had already been to the movies twice and felt “very safe the whole time” because of masks, the small crowd and the distance between viewers.

“We really missed the movies, and this is one activity we can do and feel pretty safe. I want to support a business trying to make it as long as they’re safe and following CDC guidelines, so I’m happy to do that,” Cook said.

Movie theaters are struggling financially. Smitty’s has had to permanently close one of its locations, in Biddeford, because of the pandemic.

For everyone who has gone to a theater during the pandemic and felt good about it, it’s easy to find as many who do not want to go to an indoor theater, or anywhere indoors, anytime soon.

“This virus isn’t going away anytime soon, so I feel like this is just a consistent change to our lifestyle, not going to places like movies or restaurants,” said Tammy MacTaggart, 47, of Freedom, east of Waterville. MacTaggart said she and her husband used to go to the movies twice a month or so, so they do miss the experience. “I’d go to a drive-in, but not to a theater.”

Staff Writer Emma Sorkin contributed to this story.

The coming soon movie posters outside the Cinemagic movie theater in Westbrook on Saturday. Several Maine movie theaters, including Cinemagic, are opening their doors again Friday after months of being closed because of the pandemic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


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