The cinema chain AMC put itself in the crosshairs of the coronavirus culture wars this week, announcing that it would allow customers to choose whether they wanted to wear masks in theaters. On Friday, responding to a sharp backlash, it had to do a U-turn.
AMC's chief executive Adam Aron originally told Variety the company would not make masks mandatory in some areas of the country when it reopens theaters in July. He added that he would be wearing a mask when visiting an AMC theater and would be “leading by example.”
“We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy,” Aron said.
Social media response was swift, with some on Twitter saying the CEO's comments were "irresponsible."
"I was really on the fence about continuing my monthly AMC A-List membership and going back WITH a mask. #AMC, thanks for the clarity," wrote one former customer, who posted a screenshot of her membership cancellation confirmation.
Others said they would exercise their freedom not to wear a mask. “I will be the first in line at AMC theater here. I refuse to wear a mask,” one person wrote on Twitter.
In a statement released on Friday, AMC said: “This announcement prompted an intense and immediate outcry from our customers, and it is clear from this response that we did not go far enough on the usage of masks. At AMC Theaters, we think it is absolutely crucial that we listen to our guests. Accordingly, and with the full support of our scientific advisors, we are reversing course and are changing our guest mask policy.”
“Those who are unwilling to wear a mask will not be admitted or allowed to stay,” the statement continued.
On its first-quarter earnings call on June 9, the Leawood, Kansas-based company went to great lengths to assure the public it would limit attendance and institute high levels of cleaning and purify the air to keep the virus at bay. The company even highlighted its partnership with Clorox and Harvard's School of Public Health to develop an effective safety plan for getting customers back to the movies. Arguably, AMC's very existence is riding on customers returning to the cinema, since its finances have been precarious in recent months, with zero revenue coming in the door.
Austin, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse theater chain told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday it would require customers to wear masks to be admitted when it opens. “This is not political,” it said. The company will, however, allow people to remove masks while they are eating and drinking.
Regal Cinemas, which is starting to reopen theaters in some states as of July 10, said on its website that all employees will be required to wear masks, but does not specify rules for customers.
Cinemark, the nation's third-largest theater chain, also said employees will have to wear masks, but said guests will only be "strongly encouraged" to do so.
According to guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wearing a mask helps contain the COVID-19 virus. The agency advises on its website that people should wear "cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain."