Movie theaters, bingo halls, arcades, water parks and more can open in Michigan

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The rules right now in Michigan are a bit of a mess.

But no matter how you draw it up, the last batch of businesses proactively closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic can reopen Friday, Oct. 9.

The list of places that can reopen includes theaters, performance venues, amusement parks, arcades, bingo halls, bowling centers, indoor climbing facilities, indoor dance areas, roller rinks, ice rinks, trampoline parks, carnival or amusement rides, water parks and other similar recreational and entertainment facilities.

Bowling centers and ice rinks could open for organized sports in September, but now can open for all uses.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-183 – issued Sept. 25 – allowed these businesses to reopen Friday. There’s an argument they could have opened as soon as last Friday, however, as Michigan’s executive orders were struck down by a state Supreme Court ruling that day.

Whitmer’s team argued the orders still have merit for three to four weeks, but other experts disagree. While that question remains in limbo, these entertainment venues are now off the hook from either angle.

Friday marks the first day every Michigan industry can open its businesses under Whitmer’s executive orders – albeit with restrictions.

One exception is bars with 70% of their sales coming from alcohol must still be closed inside, per the orders, although they can operate in outdoor spaces.

Moore Theaters has five theaters in southwest Michigan and are among the venues ready to open Friday for the first time since the pandemic began.

“It’s not a free-for-all,” said Scott Moore, vice president of Moore Theaters. “We’re not going back to 100% (capacity). We’re still going to have to still do these things to make sure we get over this pandemic.”

There was no consideration to opening early, since it takes a few weeks to sort out logistics of getting films in, Moore said. The biggest picture debuting this weekend is “The War with Grandpa” starring Robert De Niro, Moore said.

While the executive orders may be gone – or soon to be gone – businesses like movie theaters still have restrictions thanks to orders this week from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The MDHHS order limits venues with fixed seating to 20% seating capacity and other venues to 20 people per 1,000 square feet – just like Whitmer’s executive orders mandated.

Some types of spaces are exempt – like restaurants and malls – although some industry experts are expecting the MDHHS to put forth some type of capacity limits in restaurants soon. Under Whitmer’s orders, restaurants were limited to 50% capacity.

Moore Theaters has a reservation system with “radius-secured seating,” Moore said. Once your group picks a cluster of seats, the computer system blocks off the two seats to the left, right, front and back of each person for social distancing.

Even if there weren’t restrictions, movie theaters have committed to providing a safe environment, said Emily Loeks, director of community affairs at Celebration Cinema. Most of its theaters are opening Friday, Loeks said.

“Our ability to stay open is improved by people being careful and respectful of each other and adhering to the set of guidelines,” Loeks said.

Early in the pandemic, some public health experts questioned the safety of movie theaters. But there are some inherent advantages to theaters compared to other indoor spaces when it comes to COVID-19.

“This is not a social mixing environment, unlike a restaurant or a church or a big conference,” Loeks said. “This is not an environment in which lots of disparate groups are socializing, laughing, talking with each other. You’re coming in with your cluster and you’re seated and watching a movie.”

Per the MDHHS order, masks are required. But like restaurants, people can take them off once seated if eating or drinking.

Experts have stressed the need for good HVAC systems that have the ability to bring in more outside air to dilute potential virus particles – something Celebration Cinemas has, Loeks said.

Despite being back open, there’s still concern in the movie theater industry. It’s something that’s kept Moore up late at night – will two people show up or 100 on the first day?

Regal Cinemas, the second-largest theater chain in the U.S., announced last week it will temporarily close it’s 663 U.S. theaters.

It’s a “chicken-and-the-egg situation,” Loeks said. Film companies want a critical mass of theaters to be open nationwide before releasing their investments in major movies. But theaters are looking for a good flow of movies before opening their doors.

“We really do believe that we are right closing in on a tipping point,” Loeks said.

Michigan is one of the last states in the nation to reopen its theaters, so theater owners hope the momentum is already rolling. Still, some of Celebration’s theaters will only open five days per week at the start.

“We’re all trying to get through this together,” Moore said. “Hopefully a little popcorn can help ease some of that pain.”

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