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Grab the popcorn... Northern Ireland cinemas get ready to reopen

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Michael McAdam, Managing Director of Movie House Cinemas

Michael McAdam, Managing Director of Movie House Cinemas

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

A dispenser of hydroalcoholic hand sanitizer gel is placed inside a movie theatre in Paris (Photo by THOMAS COEX / AFP) (Photo by THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images)

A dispenser of hydroalcoholic hand sanitizer gel is placed inside a movie theatre in Paris (Photo by THOMAS COEX / AFP) (Photo by THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

Michael McAdam, Managing Director of Movie House Cinemas

Cinemas hope to reopen next month as bosses put plans in place to bring audiences back safely.

Temperature checks at the doors, online-only booking, hand sanitising stations, socially-distanced seating and additional cleaning are some of the measures being talked about.

Theatres and cinemas across Northern Ireland have been closed since early March, with most choosing to stop trading in the weeks before the official Covid-19 lockdown.

Now the Executive has published reopening dates for many sectors, including opening restaurants, pubs, cafes and visitor attractions from July 3. The entertainment industry hopes to be next and wants dates.

Cinemas in the Republic of Ireland will reopen on June 29 and those in England on July 4.

Michael McAdam, owner of Movie House, also sits on the board of the UK Cinema Association and says he's been working closely with the Executive towards reopening.

He is aiming for a provisional date of around July 16 for opening his cinemas in Cityside in north Belfast, Glengormley, Maghera and Coleraine, but it will depend on the legal position and movie releases from America.

"It's a chicken-and-egg scenario," he said. "We're waiting on the big releases from the States. There's no point reopening if we have no new films to show people."

Mr McAdam has been working for the past three months to put new safety measures in place.

"I've sourced temperature readers from China," he explained. "There will be hand sanitising stations at the entrances and customers can have their temperature checked at the same time.

"I've brought in fogger machines that will spray a sanitising mist over all the seats every night. Computer software will automatically allocate spare seats between parties to take account of social distancing. There will be additional cleaning between each screening and I'm also looking at bringing in handwashing stations.

"From the very beginning we've been asking ourselves what we can do to make sure our customers and staff feel safe."

Omniplex is also aiming to open next month. Its cinemas in the Republic can reopen on June 29 and director Paul Anderson (above) hopes he will be given a similar date for Northern Ireland.

"We'll be focusing on making our customers and staff feel safe," he said. "We're not expecting people to rush back. Market research shows about a third of regular cinema goers would go to see a movie immediately if they had the opportunity.

"Another third are social sceptics, waiting to see what safety measures are put in place. And the final third say they won't go back to the cinema for some time yet."

Omniplex is also putting safety measures in place, including training staff as 'Covid Champions', providing 'sneeze screens' in front of tills, face masks for staff and hand sanitising stations for customers.

"Each auditorium will only be operating at about 25% capacity," explained Mr Anderson. "The seat in front, the seat behind and two seats either side will be kept free to meet social distancing regulations."

The picture is less positive for Northern Ireland's theatres. Lockdown has been "absolutely catastrophic" for the industry, according to the Arts Council NI, because most venues rely on ticket sales for revenue.

In the last financial year (2018-19) the arts sector in Northern Ireland made £53m in income, with £25m of that ticket sales.

The Arts Council predicts that next year (2020-21) the sector will record a deficit of £4m.

Caoileann Curry-Thompson, Arts Council officer for drama and dance, said: "It's been absolutely catastrophic and many theatres are under real threat.

"Live performance is about bringing lots of people together to share a unique experience. You want to see the actors on stage, sharing the same space and breathing the same air. But at the moment the air we breathe is a threat to our health. Theatres face huge challenges while social distancing remains in place."

The Arts Council is currently undertaking research to create guidance for venues on how to reopen. But Mrs Curry-Thompson guessed it could be well into the autumn before audiences are able to attend live performances again.

"Working in the arts is a vocation, the show must go on. We hope our audiences will come out to support us when they can," she said.

Belfast Telegraph