Movie theaters ‘baffled’ by refreshment restrictions in Montgomery Co.

Movie theaters in Montgomery County, Maryland, are allowed to reopen at 25% capacity, but one stipulation of reopening deals a big blow to their bottom line: The county has said theaters cannot serve food and drinks to moviegoers.

That’s frustrating for theater owners, because they make most of their money from concession sales, said Doug Murdoch, Executive Director of the National Association of Theatre Owners, which covers 10 movie theaters in the county.

Film studios, he said, receive most of the money that comes from ticket sales. It’s popcorn and sodas that allow theaters to stay open.

“[Concession sales are] really a critical piece of the puzzle for us if we’re going to remain financially viable,” Murdoch said.

Murdoch said while he’s thrilled that theaters have the option to reopen, he has heard from some operators who have decided to remain closed because they’d lose money opening without being able to sell refreshments.

Murdoch said he is “baffled” by the decision, because he said the county is the only jurisdiction in the state and the country to make the move.

In announcing the reopening, County Executive Marc Elrich cited continued concerns over vaccine supply for not easing restrictions more.

“This lack of vaccine doses from the state exacerbates our concerns about lifting public health protections like capacity limits that have been proven to help stop the spread of the virus,” Elrich said in a statement.

Murdoch believes theaters offer safer conditions than other venues for consuming food and drinks. That includes bigger, well-ventilated auditoriums with high ceilings, he said, with more room to space people out.

“We feel we can do it as safe or better than a lot of the venues that have been open for quite some time,” Murdoch said.

Murdoch said theaters should be treated the same as restaurants when it comes to reopening, with moviegoers only being allowed to remove their masks to eat or drink.

For theater operators, it has been tough to weather the pandemic, while being closed for more than a year. Murdoch said rent and utility and other bills continue to come in. He said some operators have closed their doors, others filed for bankruptcy, though he said those scenarios haven’t played out for theaters in Montgomery County.

Murdoch said he has reached out to county officials to express his concerns, and he’s hopeful in the near future the restriction will be lifted.

“(We are) crossing our fingers and hopeful that will happen soon, because our theaters really need it,” Murdoch said.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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