Cinemas in England and Scotland will not be mandating that audience member wear protection masks: but is that the right decision, we wonder.

Yesterday saw the roll-out of a set of government-approved guidelines for the reopening of Cinemas. Created by the UK Cinema association, in conjunction with the Dept. for Culture Media and Sport, Public Health England, the Health and Safety Executive and the BFI, perhaps the most striking element of Cinemas – Keeping Workers and customers safe during Covid-19, was the omission of any direct imperative for customers to wear face masks while inside cinemas or screenings.

Instead, the document suggests a range of now-familiar social distancing and hygiene protocols that it believes will allow cinemas, their staff and customers to remain safe and comply with upcoming regulation changes on social distancing. Those changes are slated to come into force on July 4th in England and July 15th in Scotland. They include outdoor queuing systems, availability of sanitisers, minimal staff in food preparation areas, screen protection for counter staff, floor markings, and one-way customer flows to minimise contact.

Currently Wales and Northern Ireland remain committed to their more stringent rules on distancing and isolation, travel, and are as yet not allowing the reopening venues such as cinemas – though that could change in the coming days.

The mask slips?

On the matter of wearing masks when inside a cinema or screening, this will be “neither expected or encouraged”, according to a report by Screen Daily, though it will not be discouraged. However it’s worded, this is a policy that will no doubt raise eyebrows among a section of potential customers who have been adhering to World Health Organisation advice that wearing a face mask in public places is effective in controlling the spread of Covid 19. It’s a take that the UK Government currently doesn’t side with with.

Current UK Government guidance (which you can read in full here) does not recommend that face coverings be worn in all public place. In fact, UK authorities believe that “evidence suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect you.”

“However,” advice goes on to say, “if you are infected but have not yet developed symptoms, it may provide some protection for others you come into close contact with.”

This relatively relaxed attitude appears at odds with directives issued to hospital visitors and users of public transport, where mask-wearing is compulsory in the UK. However, with pressure building to restart the retail and entertainment economy, and no enforceable English or Scottish directive to give such a policy credence, it would surely have been a difficult sell for a trade body to encourage its members to enforce a face mask requirement on its customers.

The closest government policy gets to recommending widespread use of face coverings by the general public, is to say that “you should also wear a face covering in other enclosed public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible.”

However, as all cinemas will be required to undertake a risk assessment prior to reopening, and assuming businesses unable to achieve the social distancing requirements (1m in the UK, 2m for Scotland) will not be able to reopen, this is something akin to a moot point. In fact, it’s a – pardon the pun – clear washing of hands that places responsibility squarely in the laps of cinema staff and we punters for our safety.

This means, ultimately, the decision on whether or not to enforce such a policy will be business decision made by chains, or perhaps even individual cinema managers, and conflicting priorities will immediately come into play. The lack of any commitment to face masks among UK chains is something of a tacit admission – among a business that is so demographics savvy – that they consider there to be a profit downside to enforcing any such restrictions among its customer base.

What’s more, you can only imagine some of the practical ramifications of enforcing such a policy in a sector utilised by a large youth demographic. A sector where considerations such as checking of age ID are also of conflicting importance, and where staff are regularly subjected to verbal abuse from customers and asked to police anti-social behaviour.

Thus, alongside the personal choice to wear a mask among customers, some of the responsibility for maintaining adherence to the rules will be placed on the shoulders of “social distancing champions” amongst cinema staff.

Enforcement or Choice

As with so many conundrums that will be faced as the UK attempts to emerge from its isolation over the coming months, there is going to be a trade-off between personal responsibility and government-enforced directives. Ultimately, it cannot be stated enough how much of a personal choice going to the cinema is going to have to be for a while, and how our own tolerance for potential risk should dictate the decision to go or not to go, to wear a mask or not. Contrary to how we may feel, cinema is not an essential service.

At the core of the issue is not actually we customers, but the staff for whom cinema attendance is essential for their livelihoods, and who are at-present being asked by these directives to make decisions that could potentially affect their health. It’s a fine, perhaps precarious balance they are looking to strike between getting back to work and staying healthy – and a square that’s almost impossible to circle satisfactorily.

Staff of Cineworld – under the moniker Cineworld Action Group – have already begun to coalesce a campaign to encourage management to enforce a mask-wearing policy when it reopens. At the time of writing it had just passed 1,000 signatures, showing a strong support for the policy. In the US, the AMC chain (that owns Odeon over here) last week U-turned on its policy regarding face masks. After strong social media blowback, it will now enforce masks in all its venues upon reopening.

The independent and influential Prince Charles Cinema in London has outright told its customers that it is not happy to reopen just yet, and begun to survey them about what their expectations would be regarding a safe reopening.

We choose?

Thus, the enforcement of a face mask policy will be dictated by we consumers. If enough of us stay away – unhappy with the safety odds – then changes will come. If we turn up in our droves, venues will be please with their decision.

The staff in the middle, unfortunately, will have to respond as best they can with somewhat contrary advice and guidance. We’ll begin to find out how that goes from around the middle of next month…

Images: BigStock

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