Movie theaters were allowed to reopen at 25-percent capacity in San Francisco this week. However a coalition that includes the city's biggest and most popular cinemas says the theater owners are keeping their doors closed until the city allows them to sell food and drinks, which are their money-makers.

The SF Department of Public Health issued interim guidance on Wednesday saying that while movie theaters can open at 25-percent capacity or up to 100 people, whichever is fewer, all concession areas must remain closed. "Food and beverages even if purchased outside the theater are not allowed to be brought into the theater and consumed inside the theater," the guidance says. "Eating and drinking are prohibited to ensure that face covering is continuous." The document also calls for disinfecting and sanitizing of theater spaces between shows, assigned seating, and blocking off alternate rows of seats to increase distancing.

In response, a coalition of local theater owners working under the auspices of the National Association of Theatre Owners of California/Nevada (NATO of CA/NV) announced Wednesday that while they are "grateful that San Francisco city officials are reopening theatres in The City, their proposed solution makes it economically impossible for our members to reopen and significantly limits the moviegoing experience for our audiences."

As the Examiner reports, the group includes the Metreon, Alamo Drafthouse, Kabuki 8, Cinemark’s Century 9 San Francisco Centre, Cine Arts @ Empire, Embarcadero Center Cinema, Opera Plaza, and Regal’s Stonestown. The owner of the Castro Theatre, Steve Nasser, tells the Examiner that he'll also be keeping his theater closed because the 100-person capacity limit makes running the 1,400-seat theater infeasible.

The coalition issued a statement saying, "Forty counties in California in addition to others around the country have reopened theaters per state guidelines with full concession sales," and they believe San Francisco should do the same. They're asking that the city comply with the state's guidance for "orange" tier counties, which SF joined last week, which would allow for 50-percent capacity or up to 200 guests, and concession sales.

"We have two operations at our theaters,” says Milton Moritz, the Los Angeles-based CEO of NATO of CA/NV, speaking to The Chronicle. “One is movies, the other is concessions. We can’t do one without the other. And concessions are our profit center.”

Moritz balks at the city's decision to allow indoor dining at 25-percent capacity, but creating a different set of rules for movie theaters that bans eating and drinking.

"We understand what the city is trying to do,” Moritz says to the Chronicle, “but on the same hand, treat us on a like situation. If indoor restaurants can open, what is the difference between them and us? In restaurants, you may be sitting across from each other 3 feet away, and when that mask goes down, it won’t go up again until you leave the restaurant."

Public Health experts have been cautioning throughout the pandemic that airborne virus spread is possible in indoor spaces, and now the CDC has finally agreed publicly that airborne virus particles can travel more than six feet. The thinking among SF officials appears to be that diners in restaurants may not be gathered in a space for as long as those in a theater — and, also, most restaurants have windows and doors they can keep open for better air circulation.

Moritz counters that no cases of coronavirus transmission have thus far been traced to a movie theater.

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