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Small movie theater struggles to survive as pandemic surges

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Angel Russell
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While the pandemic continues, Park Cinemas grabbles with less customers amid many staying home to stream online

In June of this year, when COVID-19 cases plummeted, movie theaters saw people returning to fill auditoriums. But with the recent surge of the virus, Park Cinemas theatre in Paso Robles said they are once again in the position of trying to keep their doors open. 

While movie theaters have so far survived the growing popularity of streaming movies online, cinemas have never faced a threat as great as COVID-19.

John Roush, owner of Park Cinemas in Paso Robles, said a comeback looked promising when theaters were allowed to do full capacity again this summer — but with the surge in COVID-19 cases, half of his auditorium seats are staying empty for showings. 

“It looks like, from all the feedback we get from customers and people I talk to on the street, there is a lot of fear out there,” Roush said.

He has been here before, and not too long ago. During the height of the pandemic when movie theaters were closed for several months, Roush watched nervously as small theaters were closing throughout the nation, and he was sure he was going to be one of them.

“Then the panic set in," Roush said. "We were probably behind half a million dollars at that point. So out of my 54 years of life, it was extremely stressful.”

Relief came when Roush was a recipient of the Shuttered Venue Operations Grant (SVOG) but while he is caught up on the bills for now, he said with business as slow as it is, it’s going to be difficult keeping his marquee lights on. 

“Come next month, we have $55,000 in rent and common area, etc," Roush said. "So once that starts hitting us, with the business we are doing now, we won’t be able to cover it.”

He’s holding out on hope for a supplemental round of SVOG to come through, but said movie theaters, because of COVID and new releases streaming online, face the fear of becoming the next blockbuster business-extinct.

Roush hopes people will return to the theater for the overall experience a theatre provides. 

“We are social animals," Roush said. "Seeing a comedy with other people, and hearing them laugh, makes you laugh more. Go to a tearjerker, and start hearing people whimpering and crying, and all of a sudden your eyes are welling up. You can’t capture the experience at home.”

Editor's note: KCBX was a recipient of the Shuttered Venue Operations Grant.

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