On July 17, Ontario entered Stage 3 of its COVID-19 pandemic reopening framework. Dubbed “Recover” this stage was intended to allow more business growth following the recent economic downturn.

For cinephiles in the region, this meant the reopening of local movie theatres — with measures in place to encourage social distancing for what is, practically speaking, a very close- quarters activity.

For owners who are operating a business that requires patrons to be in such close proximity for extended periods of time, finalizing social distancing measures has called for a mix of advisement, innovation and common sense.

Princess Cinemas owner John Tutt describes his own approach as “watching and looking”— in other words, paying attention to what has been done successfully by “the Home Depots of the world” whose reopenings came in earlier stages.

Tutt says his theatre was ready to go when the big day came: social distancing indicators were in place, plexiglass guards were installed above concession stands and staff members had met regularly to discuss potential changes in anticipation of reopening. Masks became mandatory with reasonable exceptions for eating and drinking during the show.

Director of operations for Kitchener’s Apollo Cinema, Cara Watson, found herself planning for Stage 3 with nothing much more than a capacity requirement provided by the provincial government ahead of time.

“We had our own guidelines set up [over a month before reopening] and said, well, if the government wants to give us its own then we’ll change ours according to that. But we really didn’t get set guidelines until very recently when Cineplex [pushed] to allow all their venues to reopen,” Watson said.

During the final weeks of July and into August, Princess Cinemas continued its annual partnership with the City of Waterloo to host outdoor screenings — with some slight changes, of course.

Josh Bean, festival and event specialist for the City of Waterloo, spoke of how these open-air gatherings helped locals get used to the idea of seeing a movie again safely.

“Every year we do four, sometimes five or six screenings in Waterloo Park, but we weren’t able to do that [during Phase 2],” Bean said.

Instead, Movies in the Park became Movies in the Parking Lot — a drive-in viewing experience that was not only safe but nostalgic for families.

“We got some lovely feedback from people. One family brought their 90-year-old grandmother who hadn’t been out [in public] in months, and they felt totally safe [watching from their car] … there are still open drive-in theatres, but it’s something people used to do a lot more, so there was a throwback element for people who hadn’t gone since they were a teenager,” Bean said.

DAVE KLASSEN PHOTO

Both the Princess Cinemas and Apollo Cinema have begun to strongly encourage patrons to purchase tickets in advance online to reduce contact and prepare for screenings that will quickly sell out with reduced capacity restrictions.

Tutt said that 99 per cent of Princess tickets are now sold online above 10 – 15 per cent in pre-COVID-19 times. Apollo Cinema has updated its own system to let ticket-holders pre-select their seats (max. four persons) while purchasing, which, in turn, blocks adjacent seats from being purchased to encourage distancing.

The idea of allowing or even simply encouraging strangers to assemble indoors for entertainment and leisure may be controversial, but, by design, the activity is not demonstrably less safe than, going to the supermarket where Tutt observed: “you’re pinballing off people up and down aisles.” In a typical indie theatre, patrons tend to sit quietly and avoid purposefully moving around.

Watson said that changes made so far by Apollo Cinema have been well- received.

“[Our patrons] have been very good at understanding how things need to go … the feedback has been that we are doing the best we can be doing, given the situation.”

Now that theatres are reopening, the big question on moviegoers’ minds is: when will we be able to see new releases again?

While COVID-19 has not totally suspended release date schedules, some titles that have been hotly anticipated for months remain in limbo. Wes Anderson’s upcoming The French Dispatch, originally set to screen at the Princess Cinemas in July, has now seen its release pushed back twice. Asked if he had received any update Tutt could only say, “2021— literally [no firmer date].”

For movie fans, being able to visit their local independent theatre is about more than being entertained.

“It’s a community activity,” Tutt said. “Sharing a movie with people who are passionate about what they’re going to see.”