Heading back to the movie theater this Memorial Day? Here’s what to know about new safety protocols

Nothing says “welcome back to cinemas” like haute-couture hound-nappers and slaughterous space creatures. 

This Memorial Day weekend, the Emma Stone-starring “Cruella” and long-delayed “A Quiet Place: Part II” will help usher in summer movie season for big-screen-starved audiences, many of whom are expected to return to theaters for the first time since the COVID-19 lockdown began early last year. 

With just over 39% of the U.S. population fully vaccinated as the world rapidly opens up, most movie theaters are still taking safety precautions against the ongoing pandemic. And according to a Fandango.com survey of 4,000 ticket-buyers, 93% were happy with their return experience and 87% said theaters did a great job of making them feel safe. 

Having now seen more than two dozen films since New York City theaters reopened in March (most recently weeping through the last hour of “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” at Alamo Drafthouse), here are some firsthand tips for what to expect when you go back to the multiplex. 

 (Photo: Getty Images)

Assigned seats are (mostly) enforced 

Capacity restrictions on New York City cinemas were lifted last week, yet theaters are still expected to enforce six-feet social distancing guidelines. (Confusing? Sure. Do we mind? Absolutely not.)

As a result, assigned seating continues to be very much the norm. Servers at Brooklyn’s dine-in Alamo and Nitehawk cinemas double-check your tickets before the movie starts to make sure you’re in the correct spot, while Manhattan’s IFC Center goes the extra mile by taping off seats in the auditorium so everyone is spaced safely apart. 

Theater ushers have been virtually nonexistent at AMC showings we’ve attended, although there are posted signs around the auditoriums that if you’re uncomfortable with your reserved spot, you are “free to move to a socially distant seat after the feature presentation starts.” So just be mindful and respect other people’s space, and you can watch Emily Blunt try to survive an alien apocalypse in peace.

 (Photo: Getty Images)

Concessions are scaled back, if available at all 

If you’re someone who enjoys drowning your popcorn in butter or making your own concoctions with the touch-screen soda fountain, you’re in for some disappointment: Butter dispensers and soda machines are blocked off from customers at AMC. (Drink refills have also been nixed, but you can still get small plastic containers of butter to mix in your popcorn later.)

To get concessions, you can either wait in line or schedule an order for pickup using the AMC smartphone app. If you choose the latter option, you can easily pick up your bag of concessions in the theater lobby (although brace yourself for cold popcorn). 

Like many restaurants post-COVID, dine-in theaters use a mix of physical menus and scannable QR codes to pull up their food and drink offerings by phone before the movie. IFC Center and the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, meanwhile, have paused concession sales altogether and don’t allow eating or drinking in the auditoriums.

Most theater chains, such as Cinemark and Regal, allow you to remove your mask while eating and drinking, but ask that you wear it at all other times. 

A sign detailing mask requirements at AMC 34th Street theater in Midtown. (Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Mask reminders, sanitizers are everywhere – but temp checks aren’t 

All theaters are now outfitted with multiple dispensers of hand sanitizer, buckets of hand wipes, or some combination of both. There are also many posters laying out the rules of mask-wearing, which everyone (at least at my showings) thankfully appears to abide by even as mask mandates are lifted indoors. Nitehawk has had some fun with these signs, incorporating masked characters such as Spider-Man, Ghostface and Hannibal Lecter.

Somewhat surprisingly, Nitehawk and Brooklyn’s Syndicated Cinema are the only theaters I’ve visited that do temperature checks at the door with touchless thermometers, while the latter theater also asks moviegoers to fill out contract tracing forms. 

Overall, my first few trips back to theaters were equal parts jittery and joyful, but I now feel just about as comfortable in a theater as I did pre-pandemic. As we all fall back into familiar routines and activities at our own pace, just remember to be respectful of your fellow moviegoers and hardworking theater staff, so we can all have the safest and most enjoyable big-screen experience possible. 

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