COVID-19 turns a trip to one of Texas’ few open theaters into a frightening adventure
I entered the movie theater very carefully, mask on my face, my eyes as scared as a kindergartener’s on the first day of school. A young woman behind a Plexiglas screen motioned me over. To my left, a photographer from the local newspaper snapped photos of me like I was a Presidential candidate entering a polling place to vote for myself. A dozen employees were milling around or standing at the snack bar, also all wearing masks. I was the only visible customer at the movies. It was 12:45 on a Monday afternoon in Kyle, Texas.
“Welcome to Evo,” she said. “Are you going to see a movie?”
“What else would I be doing here?” I said.
“Have you or anyone in your family had flu-like symptoms in the last 14 days?”
I suppose I could have lied if I’d needed to, but I didn’t.
“I need to take your temperature,” she said.
I held out my wrist.
“That’s wrong,” she said.
I turned my temple to her.
“Your forehead,” she said.
She pointed a ray gun at my face. It made no noise and emitted no light.
“You’re fine,” she said, and motioned me over to the ticket kiosk while the photographer documented my courage and stupidity.
They’d cleared me to go to the movies.
Everything was normal again.
A Plan To Reopen
When Gov. Greg Abbott announced his Phase One plans to reopen Texas a couple of weeks ago, one thing really surprised me: He was including movie theaters. The state would only allow them to operate at 25 percent capacity, and they’d have to follow all kinds of new rules. But in Texas, before anywhere else in the country, you could go to the movies.
These aren’t outdoor malls, or state parks, or even restaurants where you can have a margarita on the patio. Movie theaters are dark and cold, with tons of touchable surfaces. People make a habit of coughing and sneezing in these hermetically-sealed rooms, and make all kinds of disgusting mouth noises while shoveling junk food down their gullets. Given what we know about COVID-19 and how it spreads, this seems the exact opposite of the type of place you’d want to be in right now.
No theater is actually going to open, I figured, despite the option.
I was wrong.
Over the weekend, three movie theaters in San Antonio, operated by a local business called Santikos Entertainment, welcomed nearly 3,000 moviegoing customers. They kept every other row empty, didn’t allow soda refills, and made employees, but not customers, wear masks. The enthusiastic response, according to one Hollywood executive, meant there was a lot of “pent-up demand.”
Well, maybe. Going to the movies was literally the last thing I did in the first week of March before I retreated to my house like a mole, seemingly forever. Even as my wife and I enjoyed a screening of Emma at our local Alamo Drafthouse, it still somehow felt like this was the last movie I was going to see for a long time.
Two months of death, poverty, and fear followed, maybe not in my life specifically, but definitely on my social-media feed and in the news. And the movies collapsed. Every day brought more news of canceled or delayed releases, filming shutdowns, massive layoffs in the industry, and general disruptive panic. Like everyone else, I wished that life could be the way it was before. But even though it was one of the few social activities that I actually enjoyed doing before the virus hit, I still didn’t want to go to the movies.
Then came word that a theater in the far southeastern suburbs of Austin was ready for business. Evo Entertainment, a small Texas chain, was opening its theater in Kyle. Its strategy would be the same as Santikos: Second-run or two-month-old films, social-distancing protocols, lots of hygiene, and $5 tickets.
Well, shit, I thought. Now I had to consider it. I’m the editor of a website that covers the culture industry. “Film” is in the site’s name. And I, unlike almost anyone else in the world, had the option of going to the movies about a half-hour drive from my house. This felt like something we should cover. But I didn’t feel comfortable asking any of my freelancers, most of whom I know have been diligently quarantining during the pandemic.
And so I went to the movies.
Goin’ On Down To Kyle, Gonna Have Myself A Time
I filled up my wife’s Prius for $12 and drove to Kyle, a small town south of Buda, which itself is south of Austin. In ordinary times, this would have been a Death Race commute that took me at least an hour. In this pandemic times of reduced traffic, it took 33 minutes.
Before I left, I considered Kyle very carefully. I consulted the local paper’s death statistics. Hays County, where Kyle is located, has had one death from Coronavirus since the pandemic started. The entire county currently has five people hospitalized and has 65 active cases. It’s not a hotspot. I wasn’t going to see a movie in the Bronx or in a South Dakota abattoir. Still.
In my long and undistinguished career as a reporter, I’ve done some dangerous things. I interviewed Larry Hoover, the murderous leader of Chicago’s Gangster Disciples, in prison. Motorcycle-riding cops wielding batons chased me down an alley during a Philadelphia political convention gone awry. I covered a Louis Farrakhan rally, as a Jew, and they confiscated my Swiss Army knife at the entrance to the United Center. In 2016, I drove around the racetrack at LeMans and drove a turbo-charged Jeep around a Formula One racetrack in Austin. I went up in a stunt airplane and vomited into my helmet, and I rode on the back of the America’s Cup yacht twice.
But none of that felt as risky, at least in my mind, as going to the movies in Kyle, Texas, on a Monday afternoon during a pandemic.
Since the dawn of COVID in America, I’d left my neighborhood maybe a half-dozen times, and only getting out of my car two of those times, both to enter a dystopian grocery store setting. I had to pick a movie to mark my grand re-entry into human society. The choices were slim.
This was a multiplex attached to a bowling alley and a gaming complex, not an art house. I’d already seen the two best films, 1917 and The Invisible Man. And I would rather go on a ventilator than see Trolls: World Tour on a big screen. I almost ponied up for Jumanji: The Next Level, but I’m a grown man and that’s a movie for children with bad taste.
When I got to the theater, I saw that there had been a screening of Aquaman at 11:30. I was disappointed, I would have gone to that. As far as I know, it’s the only movie that contains a scene of a giant octopus playing the drums during an undersea trident battle. That’s my cinematic gold standard.
Instead, I paid $5.41 for a ticket to Bloodshot, starring Vin Diesel.
There were Plexiglas screens everywhere, blocking the bar, the kitchen, and the cash registers, but nothing in the theaters themselves. Mask-wearing teenagers roamed the halls with spray bottles and rags. Posters advertised movies that Hollywood had scheduled to release in March.
I probably shouldn’t have gone into the bathroom, but I really had to pee. It was clean-ish and the soap dispensers were full. Yellowing signs above the urinals advertised drink promotions from another time.
On the entrances to the theaters, Evo had taped paper notices, already wrinkled, urging patrons to “practice social distancing.” I went into an auditorium. A man and a woman were sitting there, not wearing masks, happily munching on their popcorn as though the pandemic had never happened. The movie was supposed to start in one minute. I took my seat, fourth-row center. A guy came in, ripped the bandana from his face right as he walked behind me, took a seat a few rows away, and started slurping on his Coke. Not all heroes wear capes.
The previews began, the same ones that I’d seen at movies before the crisis: Mulan, Black Widow, Wonder Woman, Top Gun: Maverick. Someday, maybe, we’ll get to see these movies. Christopher Nolan is insisting that his new movie, Tenet, come out in July as normal. Maybe. We saw a preview for that movie as well.
The other three patrons had their masks off the whole time. Though I kept mine on, I did slip the mini-boxes of Junior Mints out of my pocket when the feature started. I don’t give concessionaires my money even in normal circumstances, and always have a huge stash of Junior Mints at home in the fridge. I popped the mints into my mouth under my mask, not sanitizing my hands after each one. They were very refreshing, as Kramer says, though these ones tasted faintly of fear.
Bloodshot was very stupid and probably not worth the risk. Based on a series of independent comic books, it features Vin Diesel as a dead soldier who evil scientists have resurrected, replacing his blood with tiny nanotech robots that automatically regenerate his tissue, meaning he cannot die unless the scientists shut him down.
There were a few decent twists, an extended set piece involving an overturned flour truck in a tunnel in Budapest, and a “funny” black scientist with a British accent. Sam Heughan from Outlander plays the main bad guy, which my wife probably would have liked. A female action lead who kind of has a Gal Gadot vibe going on emoted poorly. Vin Diesel grunted and punched and generally held the screen like the reliable action star he’s been for a while. Unlike in Aquaman, there was no octopus playing the drums.
If we’d already received the all-clear from COVID-19, seeing a moronic superhero movie that rips off Robocop, Wolverine, and Deadpool would have felt like a relief. But though I found myself occasionally drifting into movie-land, my brain kept snapping back. What if someone coughed? Had consuming my Junior Mints given me Coronavirus? Did I already have Coronavirus? Had I already had it in March? Was the very act of me going to a movie, even on a journalism assignment, dooming someone’s poor abuela to the grave? My God, was the food supply chain really going to collapse like I’d read on Yahoo News? When? These are all thoughts I had while watching Bloodshot, starring Vin Diesel.
With 15 minutes left, Vin Diesel did battle in the kind of outdoor elevator shaft that only appears in a movie skyscraper. He fought a character who for some reason now had smart robot arms. Meanwhile, a couple of mask-wearing employees walked through the theater with spray bottles, spritzing down a surface here and there with disinfectant, though what they spritzed seemed pretty random and was certainly nowhere near anything anyone in the theater had touched.
Then the movie was over and I bolted from my seat. In the hallway, I heard the same message echoing out of empty theaters on either side of me: “Our team is sanitizing all surfaces with medical-grade cleaning products. Our team is sanitizing all surfaces with medical-grade cleaning products.” It wasn’t exactly “let’s all go to the lobby.”
A couple of kids walked around, sanitizing surfaces with medical-grade cleaning products. Other kids leaned on the counter, looking bored as hell, like any movie-theater employee would on a Monday afternoon. This wasn’t an ordinary Monday afternoon. But sure, let’s just pretend.
I went into the car, slathered my arms and hands with sanitizer, turned on the power, and removed my mask. As soon as my shaking subsided, I drove home in much less traffic than usual, fairly confident, but not 100 percent certain, that I wasn’t going to get sick.
And that’s what it’s like to go to the movies in COVID-19 America.