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As Christopher Nolan fans rush to see 'Tenet,' how safe are movie theatres?

TORONTO — Reserved seating, cheap tickets, and official permission to stash your bag on the seat beside you. Depending on who you ask, it's either the best or worst time to go to the theatre.

TORONTO — Reserved seating, cheap tickets, and official permission to stash your bag on the seat beside you.

Depending on who you ask, it's either the best or worst time to go to the theatre.

Looking to attract those who may fall into the former category, Cineplex, Canada's largest theatre chain, reopened all of its 164 locations across the country last week.

The announcement came in advance of Wednesday's release of "Tenet," the latest gloomy, bass-driven thriller from director Christopher Nolan.

The movie, which is expected to become the year's biggest blockbuster amid a stagnant box office due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is getting a staggered international release in which Canadians get to see the film a week and a half before its Sept. 3 release in the U.S.

Aided with a summer hit to draw audiences in with, Cineplex is now promising a safe and entertaining return to the silver screen.

"We put our tickets on sale for 'Tenet' last week, and it's been well over expectation at this point," Seguin said. "There's been a lot of traction in pre-sales."

In the process, however, audiences are being asked to jump through a few more hoops than they might be used to.

It starts with booking your ticket, which is much like booking a seat on a plane: a digital map of the theatre's seating arrangement is presented, and customers get to choose a pod of designated seats to view the movie from.

Seat options are designed to be spaced at least six feet from one another, and are typically staggered so there is no one sitting directly in front of, beside, or behind you.

Customers also must wear a mask until they sit down, at which point they can remove it to eat and drink.

Movies are also now preceded by a video of an infectious disease expert, who briefs the audience on proper hand washing hygiene and reminds everyone to keep their mask on when getting up.

The seats are not blocked off, so the seating arrangement may take some enforcing — either by employees or other moviegoers, says Miguel Barbosa, a music video director from Vancouver, who saw "Tenet" on Wednesday.

Barbosa said an employee made sure everyone was in their seats before the movie started, and patrons were reminded of the movie chain's mask policy.

However during the screening, one person got up to switch seats, and the rule-breaker was called out by another audience member for going against the distancing policy.

"There’s definitely an opportunity for chaos to develop, but I do think people are going to police each other, and I think people should feel empowered to police each other," said Barbosa, noting he had a positive experience at the theatre overall.

"I felt safer than I would have in a grocery store, just based on the proximity to people," Barbosa said.

"This is coming from somebody who has only gone to grocery stores since things reopened."

Daniel Seguin, Cineplex's senior VP of national operations, says the company is confident in its COVID-19 safety strategy and thinks audiences have responded positively to their reopening plan.

Seguin acknowledged that he has heard some concerns about the lack of adherence to distanced seating, which is a policy that is heavily reliant on customer participation.

"We did have a couple of comments in that regard in some of our theatres," Seguin said.

"During the show time, it is unfortunately difficult to see and control what is happening. It's not like we block off the seats."

When asked why Cineplex doesn't block off seats, Seguin said it is primarily because the company wants to put the trust in customers to follow the distancing policy voluntarily.

Seguin added that each auditorium is assigned a designated employee who is supposed to handle crowd control, including asking large groups if they are part of the same bubble or if they are family members.

If they're not — or if the person or group is blatantly disobeying the assigned seating protocol — the employee has instructions to ask the individual or group to move.

"Generally, the feedback we have received has been positive."

But some experts caution that catching a flick still carries with it a risk of catching the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Anna Banerji, director of global and Indigenous health at the University of Toronto's faculty of medicine, argues the risked posed by attending a movie theatre is far higher than many people realize.

Banerji points to a closed, indoor environment, potential lack of physical distancing, and an ability to remove your mask in the proximity of other people as risk factors that can increase the chance of catching or transmitting COVID-19.

And while Banerji says the precautions being taken by Cineplex are helpful, she urges those considering going to see a movie to take public health guidelines seriously.

"I think no place is safe if you don't pay attention to the rules," she said.

"You're getting a whole bunch of people sitting inside a closed space for hours at a time without masks...You only really need one person with COVID for it to start spreading."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on August 28, 2020.

Jake Kivanc, The Canadian Press

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