SAN ANTONIO — It happened early inside the cool, darkened cineplex, before Vin Diesel even had a chance to turn superhuman, as people sat munching popcorn and sipping sodas in their plush recliner seats.
If anyone seated nearby was alarmed, no one showed it. The cough sounded muffled: The moviegoer was wearing a mask — part of the recommended etiquette of going to the movies in the middle of a pandemic.
On Saturday, three movie theaters in the San Antonio area became some of the first in the country to reopen, a move that worried some infectious-disease experts but was applauded by those who bought tickets and went to the show.
Santikos Entertainment opened three theaters, offering discounted prices, a limited food menu, workers in masks and greeters who opened doors as people entered, limiting contact with door handles.
The theaters were showing older releases for $5, and at the Palladium, in an upscale shopping center called the Rim, business was steady — low for a Saturday in May, but higher than what might be expected in a state still grappling with a coronavirus outbreak that has killed nearly 900 people, 48 of them in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio.
Texas took a big step out of its coronavirus lockdown Friday, allowing restaurants, malls, retail stores and some other businesses to resume operations, with strict limits on the number of patrons allowed inside.
Movie theaters, like restaurants, were allowed to seat only 25% of their listed capacity.
Grady McClung and his wife Rachel went to the 1:10 p.m. showing of the Christian movie “I Still Believe” at the Palladium, each wearing a mask.
“Yesterday was my birthday, so I got the first two tickets for the first opening of the first movie in the first movie theater,” said Grady McClung, 51, a project manager for a telecommunications company who lives in nearby Boerne. “There’s about 12 seats in a 150-seat auditorium. We’re well spaced out.”
To sit in a theater with dozens of strangers was a walk on the wild side of public health. But as the movies played and the plots thickened amid the crunch-crunch of patrons chewing popcorn, Hollywood was doing what it has done for decades: providing an escape, albeit masked and at a distance.
Grady McClung and others at the theater said that before buying their tickets they had researched the steps the company was taking to keep people safe and were satisfied that they were not putting themselves at risk. Going to the movies, some of them said, brought back a touch of much-needed normality after weeks under quarantine.
“If you feel like you have fear, then that’s perfectly fine, and you don’t go out,” Grady McClung said. “But other people need to get their lives back. We didn’t go to movies all the time. I mean, probably five or six a year. But this was something that was right for now.”
At the afternoon showing of the Vin Diesel action-adventure flick “Bloodshot,” moviegoers kept their distance, sitting two, three or four seats apart. Some wore masks, and others wore them in the lobby but took them off in the auditorium to eat popcorn.
In Row F, the company mistakenly put three guests in F1, F2 and F3, nearly elbow to elbow. F2 moved down to F7 to ensure social distancing.
Tim Handren, the chief executive of Santikos Entertainment, said the company was taking the safety of both employees and customers seriously and was going beyond the state’s health requirements.
“We are following, we believe, the best guidelines that we can to open safely,” Handren said in a YouTube message to the public.
Masks were recommended, but not required, for customers. In the lobby of the Palladium, a masked worker asked customers as they entered whether they or anyone they had been in contact with had experienced fever, chills or other symptoms in the past 14 days. Signs warned that if the answer was yes, they would not be allowed to enter and the cost of their tickets would be refunded.
Cashiers stood behind plexiglass shields. At least 75% of the seats in each auditorium were left unsold. Many doors were left open so people did not have to touch them. The arcade games were shut down, and no cash was accepted — those with cash exchanged their bills for gift cards.
“We’re trying to minimize the number of touch points, where you could be interacting with, touching, things that we don’t need you touching, or our employees,” Handren said in the video.
The company had asked employees if they were comfortable returning to work before reopening, Handren said, and “our employees have resoundingly said, ‘We want to come back.’” Santikos had furloughed employees and had kept its theaters closed for more than 40 days.
Handren said that the company would probably not make money off the low-capacity showings but that it recognized that people needed to get out of their houses and “just go somewhere else.”
That said, business was brisk: By the early evening, the Palladium had sold 800 tickets and was still getting walk-up customers.
Infectious-disease experts said they worried that the decision by Gov. Greg Abbott to include movie theaters in the first phase of the state’s partial reopening was risky.
“You’re not going to catch me at a theater any time soon,” said Dr. Diana Cervantes, an expert in infection prevention and control who is an assistant professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, a medical school in Fort Worth.
“When you think of what aids transmission, it is going to be the type of contact you have with the person who’s infected, the length of time, proximity — all of those factors come into play. The amount of time starts to be a little too prolonged for me to be sitting there with a bunch of strangers.”
Joe Garcia, 74, a retired military chaplain in a camouflage mask, said he had no health concerns. He printed out a copy of the theater’s safety procedures and brought it with him.
He and his family have a long-running tradition: Once a week, they bring his 41-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy, to the movies, one of her major social outings. The tradition had been put on hold during the coronavirus lockdown.
Garcia, his daughter and his other daughter, Karla Ross, 51, went to the 4:10 p.m. showing of “I Still Believe.”
It was the first time in six weeks that Garcia, who lives in Blanco, had seen Ross, who lives in San Antonio, because Garcia’s age makes him more vulnerable to the virus than others.
For their day back at the movies, he had no worries.
“We feel safe,” he said.