AMC Theatres reverses course: Fine, we'll require masks when we reopen next month

“We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy,” said the CEO yesterday when asked why the company had decided not to mandate mask-wearing by its customers. “We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary.”

Well, those people can stay home, can’t they?

Let’s be real. To the extent this is a “political controversy,” it’s being made so by the anti-maskers. There’s no “political” reason to wear them, notwithstanding the president’s belief that pandemic hygiene is some sort of middle finger to him personally. You wear them to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. The “political” choice when it comes to masks is not to wear one because Democrats think they’re a good idea or because Trump thinks they’re “weak” or whatever. Case in point:

Numerous health officials in Oklahoma have warned this week that tomorrow night’s indoor mass gathering is a legit risk to public safety. There’s no health reason for Kayleigh McEnany to eschew a mask under those circumstances. It’s pure political vice-signaling for the boss.

Anyway, the news yesterday that masks would be optional at AMC in the name of avoiding a “political controversy” caused enough of a political controversy that news is breaking this afternoon:

Shortly before AMC’s change of heart was announced, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema tweeted out this pointed statement of its own policy as it moves towards reopening:

We’ll come back to that bit about eating and drinking in a moment.

I can *almost* talk myself into believing that AMC’s original mask-optional policy is the optimal one for bottom-line reasons. My thinking is this: For strong-form mask proponents like me, nothing’s getting us into a theater before the vaccine is available. You could give the tickets away for free and hand everyone a mask on the way in and we’d still regard it as a nutty needless risk to congregate with a group of strangers in an enclosed space for several hours for no better reason than entertainment. If the good lord had wanted us in theaters right now he wouldn’t have made VOD.

A mask-required policy gets you nothing with those consumers. And meanwhile it would alienate the anti-maskers, the people who are not just willing but eager to get back into theaters and show the world that they’re not scared of becoming one of the several hundred thousand Americans who are going to die from COVID-19 this year. In which case, why not go the mask-optional route? That’ll bring in many of the weaker-form mask proponents plus the anti-maskers. And it’ll iron out the little wrinkle of people needing to take their masks off anyway to eat the snacks they’ve purchased, which defeats the purpose of a mask-required policy. Some concessions sold in the theater, like tubs of popcorn, can take an hour or more to scarf down. Why bother mandating masks if you’re going to carve out an exception that large?

To put that differently, although mask-wearing isn’t political, Alamo’s “masks required! (except when eating)” policy sort of is.

But in the end, the mask-optional policy isn’t optimal for a simple reason. If you don’t do everything you possibly can to limit transmission at your theater and an outbreak ensues that catches the media’s attention, you’re finished. Some of the weak-form mask proponents will be scared into staying home. Even some of the anti-maskers might decide that it’s not worth the risk. Whereas if universal mask-wearing really does work to stop the spread, it’ll make Americans much more comfortable about going to the movies. A few months without any cases linked to transmission at a theater might even convince some strong-form mask fans to venture out.

As for what happens when the new mask-required policy produces an outbreak anyway because people keep taking their masks off to eat and drink, AMC and Alamo will get back to you on that.

Actually, I’m probably too pessimistic about how Americans would react to an outbreak linked to a theater. As others around the world have noticed, we’re a decadent people who have resigned ourselves to underperforming when faced with challenges, including pandemic prevention. We’d likely just shrug at AMC becoming a hot spot and keep packing into theaters because mass death is just the way things need to be:

“It really does feel like the U.S. has given up,” said Siouxsie Wiles, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand — a country that has confirmed only three new cases over the last three weeks and where citizens have now largely returned to their pre-coronavirus routines.

“I can’t imagine what it must be like having to go to work knowing it’s unsafe,” Wiles said of the U.S.-wide economic reopening. “It’s hard to see how this ends. There are just going to be more and more people infected, and more and more deaths. It’s heartbreaking.”…

Commentators and experts in Europe, where cases have continued to decline, voiced concerns over the state of the U.S. response. A headline on the website of Germany’s public broadcaster read: “Has the U.S. given up its fight against coronavirus?” Switzerland’s conservative Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper concluded, “U.S. increasingly accepts rising covid-19 numbers.”…

Meanwhile, several U.S. states have reopened despite rising case numbers.

“I don’t understand that logic,” said Reinhard Busse, a health management professor a the Technical University of Berlin.

AMC should do a promotion where, if you get the virus at one of their theaters, you get a year’s worth of free tickets after you recover. If you end up on a ventilator, free tickets and free popcorn.

Here’s Scott Gottlieb on CNBC this morning reminding the audience that there are greater pandemic-related infringements on liberty than wearing a mask.