Special to HuntingtonNews.Net

The nationwide guidelines require that all patrons and employees wear face coverings.

In the campaign to urge consumers to return to movie theaters — which reopen in earnest this weekend in the U.S. after a five-month shutdown — the National Association of Theatre Owners on Friday announced a nationwide set of health and safety protocols in the era of COVID-19 that include requiring masks.

CinemaSafe was revealed just as the major circuits in the U.S. begin flipping on the lights after a devastating hiatus. This weekend, the Russell Crowe road-rage thriller Unhinged — the first new wide release to hit the big screen since the pandemic began — opens in more than 2,000 theaters (New York and Los Angeles cinemas remain dark, however). And Christopher Nolan's Tenet opens over Labor Day weekend stateside. Nervous Hollywood studios and box office analysts will be carefully monitoring the returns.

Dubbed CinemaSafe, the NATO protocols are based on Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines, and were developed over several months by a team of industry experts in consultation with leading epidemiologists, including David F. Goldsmith of George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health and Joyce Sanchez, an infectious disease specialist and director of the Travel Health Clinic at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin.

“In this new pandemic world, moviegoers need to know that there is a consistent, science and experience-based set of health and safety protocols in place no matter what theater they visit. This unprecedented industry-wide effort is a promise designed to meet that need," NATO chief John Fithian said Friday in announcing the initiative during a rare industry press conference attended by heads of the world's major theater circuits.

Sanchez and Goldsmith, who also participated in the briefing, said going to the movies isn't risk-free, but that the voluntary guidelines will go a long way in mitigating that risk. They both said that as of now there hasn't been one case of transmission of COVID-19 traced to a movie theater (cinemas are open in numerous countries overseas, as well as in some U.S.)

"As far as risk goes, it isn’t risk free. It is important for the public to understand that but there's no data that movies have been a source of transmission," Sanchez said. "Honestly time will tell, but that is at least some basis for reassurance."

NATO's voluntary guidelines require that all patrons wear face coverings at all times while in the while in the auditorium and common areas of the theater with limited exceptions. Those who refuse to do so will be denied entry. (All employees must also wear masks.)

Exceptions to this policy include those unable to wear face coverings such as children under 2 years of age and individuals with certain medical/physical conditions that inhibit their ability to safely wear face coverings.  In addition, face coverings may be removed for the purpose and limited time period necessary to consume food and beverages, if approved by state or local health authorities.

"We will be enforcing this very carefully," said AMC CEO Adam Aron. "We will not let them stay in the theater if they don’t keep them on except for a few minutes when they are sipping their cook or eating their popcorn."

Later in the press conference, Sanchez said she would encourage patrons "to minimize eating and drinking."

Earlier this summer, Aron sparked a furor when saying his circuit would not require masks in order to avoid wading into political territory. Overnight, AMC reversed that position and said face coverings would be required.

Cinemark chief Mark Zoradi said there have been almost no mask incidents at the 60 Cinemark locations that have now been open for several weeks. "There are very few people are showing up without masks. For the very few that show up without one, we are offering a mask for free. For the isolated case, we’ve offered a refund.I think the word is out nationally.

Other protocols included reduced capacity and staggered seating, social distancing and increased air ventilation. Sanchez said she expects capacity to be reduced by 30 percent to 50 percent initially.

As of now, more than 300 companies, comprising more than 2,600 locations and more than 30,000 screens across the United States have signed on, with more expected. Those theaters may display the CinemaSafe badge and protocols on their websites, and soon, at their theater locations.

"These protocols, and the way they were developed, demonstrate a serious, comprehensive effort by movie theater owners to examine every aspect of their operations, identify potential risks, and reduce them," said Goldsmith. "Their emphasis on the health and safety of their employees is an indication of their preventive commitment to moviegoer safety."

Other CinemaSafe protocols include modified concessions and the elimination of communal food and condiments that requires shared serving utensils or equipment; mobile ticketing whenever feasible and frequent hand-washing by employees; employee health training and health monitoring; availability of hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol; and enhanced cleaning.

"It was super clear that a nationalized program that brought the industry together was really the thing that consumers were looking for more than anything else in feeling like it was safe to return to the movies," said Megan Colligan, president of Imax Entertainment. "This is a huge global business. The whole world relies on the export of U.S. cinemas and these movies are incredibly important to the livelihood and jobs of so many people around the world."

Colligan and other executives participating in the NATO's virtual press conference said U.S. cinemas have benefited from speaking with their counterparts overseas who have reopened, both in terms of safety protocols and whether moviegoers are turning out. She noted that in China this weekend, the new Chinese tentpole The Eight Hundred has already earned a massive $49 million even though capacity is still being kept at 50 percent.

"Some people need to go to the gym. Some people  need to surf. And some people need to go to the movies. That's their  happy place," said Colligan. "Moviegoing is beloved around the world and I think as we start to serve new content, audiences will be very responsible."