(Bloomberg Opinion) -- AMC Entertainment Inc., the largest cinema operator in the U.S. and Europe, initially decided that it wouldn’t require guests to wear masks at its theaters when they reopen, and for an especially troubling reason: “We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy,” CEO Adam Aron said in an interview this week with Variety. But wearing a mask isn’t a political statement, and it’s dangerous for corporate brands to suggest it is.
AMC reversed course on Friday afternoon with a statement saying that after “an intense and immediate outcry from our customers” it will now “require that all AMC guests nationwide wear masks as they enter and enjoy movies at our theatres.”
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, mixed messages from government leaders caused confusion around how to keep people safe, with masks thought to be unnecessary at one point. (Plus, there were concerns of creating shortages for hospital workers, which happened anyway). But given what health experts have since learned about how this particular virus infects, there is little doubt now that face coverings help minimize the spread. Already, as many as 450,000 Covid-19 cases may have been prevented because of state-mandated face masks in public settings, according to a study by Health Affairs, a peer-reviewed health care journal.
Health experts have determined that masks are best worn in crowded places where you’ll be for a long stretch of time, especially if it’s an enclosed area. The close quarters of a movie theater — along with airplanes, restaurants, subway cars and theme parks — are a perfect example. Still, as of Friday afternoon, AMC's rivals, Cineworld Group Plc’s Regal Cinemas and Cinemark Holdings Inc., weren't requiring masks unless a certain state or county does. Places with loud talking or singing can be super-spreaders as well. These factors are all why Walt Disney Co. and Comcast Corp.’s Universal are requiring face coverings at their parks, as are airlines including American and Delta for passengers and crew, even if reports of full flights partially negate those efforts.
Face coverings are also more effective if everyone wears them; the more stylish cloth masks being sold by retail chains and Etsy artisans may not provide the same level of protection as professional-grade filtering respirators, but if everyone is wearing some type of face covering, the risk of transmission is probably low.
While AMC was already requiring masks for its employees, “We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary,” Aron said in the Variety article Thursday. “I will certainly be wearing a mask and leading by example.” The problem with this line of thinking is that it falsely suggests wearing a mask is a personal choice deeply rooted in one’s beliefs. That makes it even more difficult for any businesses to enforce without facing push-back. As it is, that enforcement will fall to workers — often young people — who may be ill-equipped to handle an uncooperative customer if the rules seem squishy.
It’s not like movie theaters and other businesses don’t already have their own rules. Retailers and restaurants generally require shoes and shirts to be worn at all times. And everyone knows that you can’t bring your own food and drinks to the movies or smoke inside. You’re also supposed to silence phones before a film starts. Wearing a mask should be treated as just another point of etiquette.
Because aspects of the crisis have already been politicized in some ways, companies are understandably concerned about alienating customers at a time when they’re trying to bring back revenue and traffic. But they also risk making other customers scared to venture out again if it doesn’t feel safe. As Bloomberg Opinion’s Noah Smith wrote this week, there’s good reason to believe that “most of the economic damage from the lockdowns wasn’t due to stay-at-home orders, but because of public fear of the virus.” Credit-card spending continued, he notes.
Comments like Aron’s undermine any attempts to require masks, which will likely make it more difficult to both get this pandemic under control and restore the economy. If mask wearing is treated as it should be — a new safety protocol that we just may have to get used to for a while because health experts advise it — then it helps remove any irrational political sting. The virus doesn’t care who you vote for, and wearing a mask certainly doesn’t signal support for one party or another. What it does is to help us all finally get out of the house. At least AMC finally came around.
(Updates to add that AMC Theatres is now requiring masks.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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