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Coronavirus in Austin: What movie theaters are saying about Abbott’s reopening plan

Eric Webb
"The AFS Cinema will remain closed until further notice as we do our part to prevent the spread of this deadly virus," said Austin Film Society CEO Rebecca Campbell. [AMERICAN-STATESMAN FILE]

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced that he would let the state’s stay-at-home restrictions begin to expire at the end of April.

Beginning Friday, movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants, museums, libraries and malls will be able to reopen at 25% capacity — part of the first phase of Abbott’s plan — after restrictions meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus led to shutdowns across the state. The order does not require businesses to reopen.

Some Austin movie theaters aren't ready to turn their projectors back on, even if they're allowed to do so.

A spokesperson for Alamo Drafthouse, the Austin-based theater chain that also offers in-screening dining service, said in a statement Monday evening that reopening its theaters would be a “complex” project entailing new equipment and training on updated safety procedures.

“This is something we cannot and will not do casually or quickly,” the statement read. “We will not be opening this weekend.”

Drafthouse has 21 Texas locations, including six in the Austin area.

Rebecca Campell, CEO of Austin Film Society, which operates the arthouse AFS Cinema in North Austin, expressed dismay at Abbott's order. The theater announced March 17 that it would close temporarily.

She cited the low number of coronavirus tests in Texas, rising COVID-19 cases in Travis County and warnings from experts around the world as reasons to keep the theater’s screens dark.

"We are shocked at the decision of the governor to declare it safe to open movie theaters, even at 25% capacity," Campbell said. "The AFS Cinema will remain closed until further notice as we do our part to prevent the spread of this deadly virus."

AFS says it will take its cue from the national scientific community and fellow film exhibitors on when to reopen.

In the wake of the pandemic closure, AFS on March 25 announced furloughs and staff reductions, including layoffs of all hourly workers at the cinema.

Violet Crown Cinema on West Second Street also said safety for customers and staff amid the pandemic remains its priority. It had also announced a temporary closure March 17.

"With that in mind, we will not open our cinemas on May 1 and do not have a confirmed reopen date at this time," said David Gil, director of marketing and programming for the downtown theater. "We will continue to monitor the situation closely and look forward to when we can safely welcome people through our doors again in the near future."

The historic Paramount Theater on Congress Avenue hosts the annual Summer Classics Film series every year. The schedule for this year's event was set to be announced in May, but the pandemic put things up in the air. A representative for the Paramount on Monday said the theater was still reviewing the state's new guidelines. In late March, the theater announced a Quaranscreen film series — curated film picks for patrons to watch at home for as long as social distancing mandates were in effect.

Meanwhile, large national theater chains Cinemark and AMC are sticking to mid-summer reopenings, according to movie news outlet Deadline, in large part because there aren’t any major studio movie releases on the calendar until then. Many spring films were postponed or released on VOD because of the pandemic. One of the next new studio movies, Deadline points out, will be Warner Bros.’ “Tenet” on July 17.

The American-Statesman is making this coverage available to non-subscribers at no cost as a public service during the coronavirus outbreak.

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