How Movie Theaters Are Redefining Sanitation Standards Post-Covid-19

With some cinemas in the state of Texas returning to business, movie theaters around the world find themselves in the process of reviewing their cleaning and sanitation standards to once again welcome staff and patrons. 

The Texas chains that have already announced a reopening date have implemented measures like temperature readings for staff and guests (Evo Entertainment), mask and glove requirements, cashless payment options, social distancing measures, limited capacity (25% has emerged as the norm for the time being), and increased sanitization of high-contact areas. Those theaters for whom opening is not on the immediate horizon have long since begun developing their own beefed-up sanitation plans, reaching out to vendor partners who work in the janitorial space to find out best practices.

Like many other industries in a post-Covid-19 world, the topic of sanitation for movie theaters is complicated, particularly given the lack of certainty around when it will be safe to open. At the very least, different states and regions will have different reopening requirements. Given the complexity of the issue, Boxoffice Pro reached out to several specialists to get their insight.

“My first piece of advice is to go to the CDC website,” says Danny Kilgore, CEO of Simply Right, which provides cleaning and janitorial services across a number of different industries, theaters included. The CDC has published a detailed guideline on reopening procedures; in that document, you’ll find a link to another key online resource, the EPA’s list of disinfectants found effective against SARS-CoV-2. The CDC’s recommended cleaning practices are being updated daily, as “they add little tweaks to it almost every day” based on the newest information, says Kilgore. 

That’s your starting point. From there, reaching out to vendors is essential, as every cleaning product that’s effective against Covid-19 isn’t a fitting solution for movie theaters. In March, as U.S. theaters began shutting down, Inorca Seating’s Karla Banuelos began reaching out to her clients, warning them away from harsh chemicals that could cause the leather or vinyl of their seats to crack or degrade in quality. Some chemicals, says Royal Corporation president George Abiaad, take a prohibitively long time to kill the coronavirus, making them impractical for use in high-traffic areas once  theaters open back up. “No one is going to wipe the counter and wait for 45 minutes while it’s wet. You need quick results,” he says.

As head of a company that supplies much of the North American theatrical industry with a variety of supplies—including paper products, concessions equipment, and of course cleaning/janitorial supplies—Abiaad sees many products new to the market that claim to be a “panacea.” He asks of each product: “Does it clean? Does it disinfect? If it disinfects, does it kill coronavirus? Is it on the EPA list? Is it on the CDC list? Is it safe for your seats? The people that are offering it have never been into your theater; do they know what type of vinyl or leather you have on your seats?… Do they know the calibre of the 16, 17-year-old that is going to [use the product]? How are you going to train them? These things create confusion”—which Royal Corporation “mitigates and eliminates” by testing new products before offering them to customers. “We are not going to take a chance on a guinea pig situation,” he says. “We’re not Johnny Come Latelies. This is what we do.”

Kilgore, too, has seen new products enter the marketplace and capture the attention of business owners desperate for a sanitation solution. One is an electrostatic gun, which Kilgore describes as “one step up from a mister….. It sprays a light mist of chemicals. It makes it so you can do things fast.” They’re “really hard to get right now,” he says, but if you can’t find one, you don’t really need it. “A little fogger [will do]. If you can’t get that, get your regular hand-pump sprayer and put it on the finest mist possible. The reality is, supply chains suck. Getting disinfectants is easy. There’s plenty of those out there. At the end of the day, you can go to Home Depot and get pop-up sprayers [or a] backpack sprayer.”

Royal Corporation, too, is conscious of potential supply chain problems down the line, noting that “we’re negotiating to ensure that we have ample stock” of sanitation supplies. “We’re looking to manage the inventory for [cinemas], so they’re not panicky and overstocking. We don’t want hoarding.”

In terms of equipment, “gloves are going to be huge and important” moving forward, says Abiaad. “Masks will be important. Food handling is going to be very important, having the right messaging and showcasing to the customer” that their food is being prepared without physical contact. Abiaad and Kilgore both were pleased to see more hand sanitization stations go up in theaters in the weeks before the shutdown; more of those, they believe, will be key moving forward.

Kilgore emphasizes proper ventilation: “The movement of air is so [important], especially with any kind of virus. You want to get good air in and bad air out.” This is true when cinemas are closed as well as in the process of reopening—friendly reminder to call your HVAC person if you haven’t—and it takes on an added element of complexity once theaters begin inviting customers back in.

Studies have shown that, when it comes to infection, “being outdoors is a lot better than being indoors” Kilgore argues—so theaters may want to (politely) urge patrons not to hang around too much after the movie, perhaps by having them leave through the auditoriums’ exterior door (if there is one) versus back out through the lobby. Doing so can enforce social distancing as well as help cinemas keep on the right side of government-mandated capacity limits by preventing auditoria’s worth of moviegoers (at 25% capacity) from using common areas at the same time.

Whether PPE like masks and gloves should be required of moviegoers is up in the air. Evo Entertainment lists face masks as required for patron and staff and says that they will provide disposable masks to guests who do not have their own. At Santikos, masks are “currently optional in common areas such as lobby, hallways and restrooms” for moviegoers, though the Texas chain notes that they may make their usage mandatory if “social distancing cannot be maintained.”

“I don’t know if you have to require [that patrons wear masks]. But I think it’s a good safety thing to have,” says Kilgore. “The best way about it to say, ‘If you have a mask, please wear it.’ Obviously, they’re going to put it down to eat their popcorn!”

Another question on the mind of many within the exhibition community: Should staff or patrons’ temperatures be taken as they enter the theater? Kilgore is unsure, acknowledging that people want to keep their buildings and those within them as safe as possible while also saying that taking temperatures “seems a little extreme….That’s a hard one to judge.” Another practice used by Texas theaters that Kilgore is not convinced of, from a sanitation standpoint, is asking people entering the theater if they are or have been sick. Some people could be asymptotic carriers who don’t know they’re sick, Kilgore argues, while others “aren’t going to tell if you if they had it or not.”

Other complications emerge: What if you check someone’s temperature, and they’re a bit high? Does the area need to be cleared out and sanitized ASAP? What if someone starts coughing during a movie? Could be a piece of popcorn that went down the wrong way. Could be a deadly disease. Even if they’re the proper distance away, it’s not a comfortable situation. And definitive solutions have not yet emerged.

Say “a child’s coughing,” says Kilgore. “Well, that’s not an uncommon thing. Maybe someone just has a chronic cough… You’re probably going to have people leave the situation, ask for a refund, or go to a different movie or something like that. You have to handle that, and you have to be respectful of people during this time.”

The most important component of a theater’s sanitation plan, argues Kilgore, is also the most basic: “That these buildings are actively being cleaned and sanitized. After the shows. In the high-touch areas” like countertops, door handles, registers, and railings. “That’s where sickness is coming from. It’s not coming from the bottom of the garbage can. It’s coming from areas where people are touching.”

And that cleaning, argues Kilgore, should be constant, rather than tied to a specific schedule. For that recommendation, Kilgore draws from what he sees at convenience stores and grocery stores in his home state of Utah: someone is always wiping things down, whether countertops or shopping carts. “The reality with infectious disease is, you can clean a surface, and then someone could come in and touch that surface two seconds later, and it’s infected again…. We’re working with a lot of grocery stores, as well. And they just have one person dedicated to wiping down surfaces. I think that’s exactly what you’ll see theaters doing as well. They’ll have a person” in a mask and gloves—or more than one person, depending on the size of the cinema—“going around a wiping down high-touch surfaces. That’s their shift.”

Constant cleaning isn’t just good for cleanliness—it’s also key to establishing customer confidence, which in turn is essential to the recovery of the theater industry.“You should show people that you’re making sure they’re taken care of,” says Kilgore. “Masks and gloves right now are important, so people can see [theaters are] being safe in that regard.”

A new company entering the sanitation space from an operations angle—though not a company that’s new to the exhibition industry as a whole—is CIELO. Traditionally, CIELO offers technology-based tools allowing cinemas to better keep track of the health of their equipment. At this year’s CinemaCon—if it had happened—the company would have showcased their “project management solution around cinema services. More operational management than technology,” says vice president of customer growth Rafael Garzon. “And then this happens, and we said, ‘Look, we think we have a very good solution for exhibitors right now. Because everybody’s now concerned about safety, cleanliness, disinfection. What we developed wasn’t intended for the virus. But I think it’s very good [for] this time.” (During the pandemic, CIELO is offering their QR solution for free “to any business that needs a sanitation and disinfection management tool,” says CEO and founder Guillermo Younger.)

Traditionally, Garzon says, cinemas’ cleaning schedules is handled manually, with the relevant person ticking off a box on a sheet of paper when they’re done cleaning a particular area. With Cielo QR, a cinema is mapped into zones, each of which gets a custom QR code printed onto signs. When that area is cleaned, the QR code gets scanned and the employee checks off the tasks they did. Cleaning history for each zone is easily accessible, making it a simple task for a theater manager to check how recently a particular task was accomplished.

Patrons can leave feedback by scanning QR codes—no need to track an employee down or touch anything other than their own phones. That feedback is then immediately delivered to cinema staff so any problem areas, like a hand sanitizer station running low, can be fixed. Theaters could even, Garzon says, assuage customer anxiety by making their cleaning history public on their website. Even if cinemas don’t get that transparent, CIELO QR—with its signs and ability to receive feedback—makes the cleaning process more visible to customers, which is particularly vital in the weeks after reopening.

Says Garzon, “If I were the owner of one of these sites, what I would say is, ‘Hey, we’re here to listen to you. More than ever, if you have any complaints, any issues, when you see one of these QR codes anywhere in the cinema, please [use] your telephone and tell us what’s going on. We’re really listening to you.” It’s up to the theater, then, “to have good processes to take that feedback and do something with it.”

“If the [sanitation] component is not taken care of, and not done properly—it doesn’t matter. You can show all the movies [in the world]. No one’s going to come,” says Royal Corporation’s Abiaad. “We’ve been very active [working with theaters] about the messaging. We’re working now on shooting training videos… This is not haphazard. This is not done randomly: ‘Oh, yeah. We have movies, come watch them.’” Across the entire industry, exhibitors and vendors are working together to develop sanitation solutions. “Everybody’s looking to do all the right things, to ensure that this is the best environment,” adds Abiaad. “A lot of things are popping up. A lot of possibilities. But again, we go back to most basic common sense. If you treat yourself as a patron, if you look at it from [the angle of]: ‘What would I want to see, if I’m going a theater, that would comfort me?’ And you do that. That always works.”

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