By Eric Gorton, contributor
After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down movie theaters across the country last year, movies started making their debuts on streaming services in living rooms.
That option did not sit well with Harrisonburg movie buff Sandi Welsko, who declined renting them.
“For a first-run movie, I want to go to the movie theater and experience it on the big screen,” Welsko said. “There’s just something about going to the movies that makes it so much more enjoyable to me.”
Derek Barr, who reviewed movies while he was a reporter at the Daily News-Record from 1992-99, said, “I’m dying to get back into a theater. It’s just not the same feeling watching some of these at home. You miss the camaraderie that is there when you have a theater audience, especially if it’s something in a franchise with a history, like Marvel or James Bond or ‘Godzilla vs. Kong.’ Or that feeling of sharing a scary movie with an audience, like ‘A Quiet Place II’ – that was the first movie I remember being postponed.”
For Welsko and Barr, the local movie experience will take a turn for the better on May 21 when Harrisonburg’s Regal Theater will begin showing movies again for the first time in about eight months. Although the opening date is listed on Regal’s corporate website, the website for the local theater still does not list any movies, showtimes or options for purchasing tickets. Attempts to reach Regal for comment Monday were unsuccessful by press time.
A banner on the website stating, “We look forward to sharing movies with you again soon,” links to a page on the corporate website outlining pandemic safety precautions theaters will take, such as requiring patrons and employees to wear masks and a number of changes in concession areas.
Hundreds of Regal theaters opened in several states this weekend, but the closest to Harrisonburg were in Knoxville, Tennessee, and New York City.
Regal will start reopening theaters in Virginia on April 23, in Springfield and Gainesville, according to a list on its corporate website. On May 14, eight more will open in Alexandria, Charlottesville, Midlothian, Richmond, Roanoke and Sterling. Regal Harrisonburg will be one of another 18 opening around the state on May 21.
According to the state’s latest public health guidelines, entertainment venues like movie theaters can operate with occupancy limited to the lesser of 30 percent of regular occupancy or 500 people for an inside venue. Those numbers do not include staff.
Welsko said she has no qualms about going back and is even looking forward to being able to see “Top Gun: Maverick,” the sequel to the 1986 hit “Top Gun” starring Tom Cruise, which will open July 2, about two years later than originally scheduled.
She’s also looking forward to resuming a long-standing family tradition of going to the movies on Christmas night. The last time the family did that was Christmas 2019.
“My two biggest movies for the summer are probably ‘In The Heights’ and ‘The Suicide Squad.’ They are the kind of movies where you want to see and hear the whole spectacle and feel that camaraderie with the audience,” said Scott Johnson, another movie lover.
“I think it’s safer now to go back to a theater than 2020, however I still have concerns about masks and safety guidelines,” he continued. “The biggest concern for cleanliness in theaters comes from their air conditioning/filtration system.”
Increasing the auditoriums’ air intake “by 50-100% above normal levels” is among the safety measures that Regal’s website says it will be taking when its theaters reopen.
For a time, it appeared the Harrisonburg Regal had closed for good. In October, the theater’s landlord Armada Hoffler announced it had reclaimed the Regal Cinema property following Regal’s default on the lease and that it planned to redevelop the site with apartments, restaurants and retail establishments.
By February, those plans changed and Armada Hoffler stated it had started receiving rent again. The company still plans to redevelop about five acres of the property.
Calvin Pynn contributed reporting to this article.
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