Cautious measures: Public health concerns impact cinemas

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As a venue for a public gathering, the movie theatre is not immune from public heath issues. Keeping the theatre clean and the concession staff’s preparation of food and beverage items in line with the current health code are part of the daily requirements for the cinema. This is not just for the public’s safety but also for the consumer’s comfort; a clean, well-cared-for facility creates a much better experience for the patron. But when there is a public health scare, how is the movie theatre impacted and what can we do to minimize consumer risk and our own liability?

The current swine flu scare has prompted this conversation to take place within theatre exhibition offices around the country. But it is not the only concern. The peanut scare of a few months earlier also raised questions, as has the rise in head lice across the country. You may question the last item, but if you Google “head lice,” you will see that almost every blog views movie theatres as a source of the spread of this problem.

The swine flu was reaching a near-panic level before we ultimately determined it was not as deadly a strain as feared. This did not prevent the closure of many schools and sporting events and public gatherings across the U.S., and the practical shutdown of Mexico City.

There were actual theatre closings in the U.S., though scant. The New Braunfels area of Texas, between San Antonio and Austin, was one of the areas with schools closed for two weeks and businesses suspended. But Mexico was the hardest hit. Theatres were closed for a period of several weeks and movie release dates were pushed back, starting with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which caused other studios to follow suit. When the cinemas were allowed to reopen, patrons were told to sit seven feet from one another. This didn’t help bring them back in droves.

New regulations at the concession stand also didn’t help. Employees had to wear masks and gloves while handling any food product and also had to offer hand-sanitizer gel. These precautions were also played out at some theatres in the U.S., particularly the use of gloves. Hand-sanitizer gel became prevalent everywhere. (What did we do before the invention of this product?)

The swine flu will be back in October with the regular flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but they also believe they will have a vaccine for it.

The swine flu came on the heels of a different health scare: contaminated peanuts and peanut products. The U.S. government asked consumers to throw out certain snack products containing peanuts or peanut butter purchased during a six-week time frame beginning in mid-January. One of the products identified with contamination was Ritz crackers with peanut butter, which in the snack size are actually served at some theatres and cafés.

This product was one of many, but the peanut scare became universally applied to peanuts and a battle ensued between peanut farmers, manufacturers and consumers over what was safe to consume and what was not. As a parent of three small children, I noted that this was not a small issue in the public school system. Products being served at school and products being shared between children were scrutinized. The issue was watched very closely by theatre concession operators, who quickly determined which products were at risk of recall.

Another public health issue that is on the rise is head lice. This has also caused school closures this year at various times across the entire country. The chemicals that were once used to treat head lice have been changed due to EPA standards and the products on the market today are not as potent. This has been reported on in the last six months by all major news outlets including print and TV media, and theatres have always made the list of places where lice can be spread. The cloth seat backs are at a height to hold the head of most children and are not cleaned on a regular basis, much less a daily basis. As mentioned above, if you Google “head lice,” you will see local blogs in areas all over the U.S., in which parents speculate that the cinema is one of the places where lice are spread.

To what extent can a theatre respond to these types of issues? Cleaning the theatre is at the top of the list. The concession personnel must be diligent about the cleanliness of the area, and facilities maintenance must apply stringent rules for the cleaning of the entire theatre, including the carpets and the seats. Theatre operational plans must include procedures for illness outbreaks, product recalls, and public communication about precautionary measures. To ignore the possibility of being affected is to be unprepared.

We need customers in our theatres to generate box office and concession revenue. This year we have proven once again that the cinema is a recession-proof venue, but when there’s a public health scare, business is not assured if consumers feel that attendance at a movie theatre will actually put their health at risk.

Please send any comments to Anita Watts at anitaw@reactornet.com.