With no new films out and a list of strict protocols to follow, movie theaters on the central peninsula are beginning to open their doors.
Movie theaters, bowling alleys, gyms and bingo halls across the state shut their doors March 18, after Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a health mandate focused on stemming case numbers of the new coronavirus, giving the state time to bulk up its health infrastructure.
Two months later that mandate is being loosened as part of Dunleavy’s “Reopen Alaska Responsibly Plan.” On Friday, phase two of the reopening plan kicked off, allowing movie theaters to open back up, with limitations.
Theaters, which include movie theaters and performing arts theaters, must practice social distancing. The state is only permitting 25% of the building’s occupancy at any one time. To enforce social distancing, theaters have to keep two seats separating non-household members, and seating is only limited to every other row. The state is “strongly encouraging” moviegoers to wear face masks. Customers must be screened prior to entering, which the mandate recommends the theater do electronically.
The new rules also require customers to make a reservation, which caused Chris and Shelly Endsley, owners of Orca Theatre, to second guess their decision to open.
“We had already decided, and announced to the public, we were going to open,” Shelly Endsley said in an email to the Clarion. “Then late (Thursday) the state mandates were released. The reservation requirement was a surprise and almost caused us not to open. We are doing all we can to abide by the mandates and are hopeful people will put forth the extra effort in order to go to the movies again.”
The Endsleys had to number their seating and upgrade their point-of-sale system in a matter of days to be able to allow reservations. Now residents can purchase tickets online and reserve seats.
“Without reserved seating it would have been almost impossible to open and still satisfy the current state mandates,” she said.
Cheryl and Marty Metiva are directors of Alaska sales, marketing and operations for the Oregon-based company that owns Kenai Cinemas and the Kenai Extreme Fun Center, Coming Attraction Theatres. The Metivas said they wanted to wait a week before reopening, making sure they had their processes down first. Kenai Cinemas and the Extreme Fun Center are opening Friday. Both venues will be allowing only 25% capacity.
In a Monday phone call with the Clarion, the Metivas said the state’s reservation requirement has been a struggle to set up. However, residents are able to buy their tickets online.
“We just don’t have the system in place,” Cheryl Metiva said.
Setting up a reservation system wasn’t the only snafu the Endsleys and the Metivas faced in their reopening. Endsley said finding movies they were able to play was also a struggle. She said film companies aren’t planning on releasing any new movies until mid-July at the earliest.
“We had to get quick approval from the film companies to show old movies,” Endsley said. “The film companies would not allow some of the titles we wanted to show and a couple of the film companies are not allowing any of their old movies to be shown.”
Right now, the Orca is playing “The Goonies,” “Gremlins,” “Bloodshot” and “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
The Metivas said they plan on showing “older movies that try to hit every genre.” The Metivas said the Kenai Cinemas will be showing some of the Harry Potter films, “The Wizard of Oz,” “V for Vendetta” and others.
The entire film industry has been “turned upside down,” Cheryl Metiva said.
The Endsleys said they have worked “long hours” to make sure the Orca didn’t “completely have to close its doors.” They have filled out 60 applications, applying for loans and aid of all kinds. Only one form of assistance was approved for their business: the Payroll Protection Plan.
“This has been extremely frustrating,” she said.
Cheryl Metiva said their company also received the PPP loan, and about 95% of their employees have returned to help the Kenai Cinemas and the Extreme Fun Center reopen.
Some of the Orca Theatre’s employees are back to help with the reopening, and the Endsleys have also added new positions to help the business meet state health standards.
Endsley said the Orca’s first weekend back open was a bit of a slow start. The Endsleys are attributing the quiet opening to a lack of new movies, reservation requirements and that some people aren’t ready to get out in the community yet.
Despite a slow start, Endsley said some residents are eager to get to the movies. She said within minutes of announcing the reopening of Orca Theatre, one woman bought out every seat in one of the showings for her child’s birthday party.
“That was exciting,” Endsley said. “During this whole ordeal, it has been very heartwarming with all the love and support this community has expressed. … It puts a smile on your face and makes you more determined to open for your customers.
Endsley said the greatest struggle in having to close for so long has been bills piling up and the uncertainty of how long it will take for things to “get back to something resembling normal.”
Metiva said the Extreme Fun Center will also open Friday, with social distancing protocols in place and gaming machines spaced at least 6 feet apart. She said the venue hopes to resume birthday parties — with social distance enforcement — beginning May 22. Metiva said they will limit party sizes and space seats at tables. “The phone has been ringing off the hook,” she said, with a majority of the calls from residents eager to stop by the fun center and theater.
“It’s so rewarding to be a part of people’s — I don’t want to sound hokey — healing,” Cheryl Metiva said. “Because this has been a stressful time for many of us.”