San Diego welcomes back movie theaters — with a side of popcorn

Manager Jimmy Plaster at Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas Del Mar
Manager Jimmy Plaster scoops freshly made popcorn at Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas Del Mar on the second day movie theaters were open in the county since having to close down four months ago because of rising COVID-19 infection rates.
(Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Movie theaters, from the AMC chain to luxury cinemas like Cinépolis, are back open indoors in the county because of declining COVID-19 rates, but allowed capacity is only 25 percent


As Iris Hirsch approached the entrance to the Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas Del Mar Saturday morning, she carefully removed the blindfolds from her three grandchildren, who had no idea they were about to see a movie on the big screen for the first time in more than a year.

Once they realized where they were, the kids let forth with cheers and some jumping up and down.

Iris Hirsh stands in line with her grandkids at Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas Del Mar
Iris Hirsh stands in line for refreshments with her grandkids Jackson, 9; Max,11; and Sophia, 8 at Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas Del Mar a day after the theaters reopened indoors.
(Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I blindfolded them in the car, they came up on the elevator blindfolded. They’ve been dying to go to the movies,” said Hirsch of Solana Beach, who had come for the first showing of “Tom and Jerry.” “One of the things they miss most ...”

”... are the movies,” chimed in her 11-year-old grandson, Max.

“It’s been exciting for me because it really does create that sense of normalcy again,” Hirsch continued. “I think this has all been hardest on the kids. I work from home, and there’s schooling from home and that’s fine, but the idea of doing something like this is really a treat.”

Thanks to San Diego County’s reentry last week into the red tier of the state’s COVID-19 reopening plan, movie theaters are now allowed to operate indoors, although at just 25 percent capacity.

Movie theaters across the county — from large chains like AMC to luxury brands Cinépolis and Angelika Film Center — reopened Friday for the first time since early November. The return to movie-going then was short-lived as surging COVID-19 cases forced the county back into the more restrictive purple tier, which bars indoor operations at theaters, restaurants and gyms.

“I must have gotten 15 calls this morning asking if we were open,” said Cinépolis Del Mar manager Jimmy Plaster, in between preparing the first batches of buttered popcorn for the day. “I could finally say, ‘Yes, we’re open.’ It’s always been ‘no’ before.”

Cinépolis, which offers reclining leather seats, a full bar and food delivered to where you’re sitting, has 11 individual auditoriums seating from the high 40s to the high 60s, Plaster said. Pre-pandemic, normal weekend volumes would be 1,500 to 2,000 patrons per day. On Friday, the theaters, located in the Del Mar Highlands Town Center, had 299 paying customers, and by Saturday morning, more than 400 tickets had been sold.

In the interest of COVID safety, the spacious lobby area was cleared of many of its tables, and the normal concession stand area where customers could previously buy popcorn and candy was now doing duty as a check-in area. Social distancing inside the theater is managed largely through the online ticketing process. When individuals buy their tickets and select their seats, the computer system automatically blocks off seats on either side of them.

Jason Mahrdt watches a movie with his kids at the Angelika Film Center.
Jason Mahrdt watches a movie with his kids Ryan, 4; Phoebe, 8; and Olivia, 4, at the Angelika Film Center at Carmel Mountain Plaza.
(Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

At the Angelika Film Center Carmel Mountain, also a luxury cinema, business was brisk on the first day of reopening, with nearly 400 tickets sold on Friday, said manager Chris Herbert. Before the pandemic, a normal weekend day would bring 1,500 moviegoers, he said. Sales of wine and draft beer brought in $1,000 on Friday, and moviegoers are able to order from an ample menu that features a flight of french fries, hummus platter and avocado toast.

“We have a large, regular clientele, and they were dying to come back,” Herbert said. “We are getting a lot of thank yous, and one other thing I’m noticing is people feel safe. We have special air filters, and right after each movie the ushers wipe everything down. We give ourselves more time in between movies for the extra step of sanitizing.”

Jessica Shepard, who had booked one of the Cinépolis theaters for a private showing Saturday of “Tom and Jerry” for her family of five, plus three other families, said their trip to the movies was their first indoor outing in more than a year.

“We haven’t gone anywhere,” said Shepard, who was with her husband, Jason, and their three kids, ages 6, 7 and 8. “We haven’t gone inside any facility. I think we’ve eaten out outside twice and we’ve been terrified of that, so this is nice — a private room and it’s spaced out.

“It was just the right time. And we also got our first vaccines, we’re three weeks in, so we feel more safe to do something like this. But I wouldn’t go in yet with the general population.”

Cristina Moore, who was at Cinépolis with her 7-year-old son, Benny, said she immediately bought tickets after learning movie theaters were reopening.

“Good-bye coronavirus,” pronounced Benny, who planned to get his usual popcorn, slushy and gummy candy for watching the showing of “The Croods: A New Age.”

“It feels nice to do something that meant so much to us,” Moore said. “It’s the idea that maybe things will go back to normal pretty soon, and it’s also nice to just have a little bit of time to slowly adjust to regular life again.”