Theaters bring back ‘a little piece of normalcy’

Friday, May 29, 2020

Fridley Theaters, including the Vista III in Storm Lake, will reopen on Friday.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds allowed theaters across the state to open as of last Friday, but with only a few days’ notice, Fridley, Iowa’s only locally-owned chain, was not prepared to safely open all of its locations.

Only Cherokee and Carroll multiplexes were opened then, as a means to gauge how protections would be used in the theaters statewide. Crowds were small, with little opportunity to promote the reopening at the time.

The theaters were mandated closed on March 17, leaving concerns about whether the industry could endure the losses of empty movie houses, according to Fridley VP Russ Vannorsdel, who spoke during a governor’s press conference this week.

It was the only time that theaters have been shut down in the time the Fridley family has been involved in the industry, dating to the 1930s. “We were concerned how we would survive without guests, and set about brainstorming a way to persevere,” he said.

The theaters, including Storm Lake’s, began providing a “popcorn to go” drive-up service, which received “overwhelming” support from the communities, and helped to bring some hourly employees back to work, Vannorsdel said. The company had early-on made the decision to continue pay and benefits for salaried workers.

With some federal and state aid, the theaters survived the shutdown.

Since the governor’s reopening announcement Wednesday, Fridley has been forming a reopening plan, training management teams on new protocol, and sanitizing the sites.

The company posted a Commitment to Communities Pledge on its website and social media, promising to protect guests, employees and communities.

Ushers in the theaters will seat visitors, ensuring that social distancing between groups is maintained. Groups will be initially limited to six people. Credit card contactless payment is being encouraged. Employees will wear face coverings, and guests are encouraged - but not required - to do so. The public is asked to stay home if they are sick, have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, or have traveled to high-risk areas. Children under 12 should not attend the theater without an adult.

Showtimes will be scheduled further apart to cut down on congestion in the lobby, and floor markings and signs will further guide guests in maintaining social distancing. Hand sanitizer stations will be added. Auditoriums will be sanitized between every showing, down to the individual seats.

Guests were excited to “get back a little piece of normalcy” in the limited openings last weekend, Vannorsdel said, eager to be “transported” into the fantasy world of movies again.

However, it will be a long road back for the industry, he predicts. All of the major studios have pushed back openings for their big spring and summer blockbusters, and there will be few new films for screens to share into at least early July.

Instead, the Storm Lake theater and other Fridley locations will bring some favorite older titles back. “Just think how exciting it is going to be to see Indiana Jones or Star Wars on the big screen again,” the Fridley VP said.

Gov. Reynolds praised the theater company. “I’m so impressed with the plan, you are doing all the right things,” she said. “I love that you are playing some of the classics while awaiting the new releases.”

While the movie-going experience will be different for a while, Reynolds said, “it is one many people have been looking froward to.”

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