Santikos Entertainment officials announced Wednesday it will begin regular coronavirus testing of all its employees starting next week as a way to assure patrons it’s safe to go back to the theater at a time when the industry is struggling to survive the pandemic.

Standing in front of the popcorn and soda machines at the Palladium theaters, Santikos CEO Tim Handren said the San Antonio theater chain would begin weekly assurance testing of its 300 workers as a way to make both employees and theater-goers feel safe returning to the movies. 

Santikos has enlisted the help of Community Labs to conduct the testing on-site at its nine local theaters. Community Labs, a nonprofit established by three philanthropic organizations, began providing testing for small numbers of asymptomatic people at the Geekdom co-working space, then on a larger scale in Somerset ISD last month. So far, Community Labs has tested 4,200 people. 

The theater chain is Community Labs’ first large workplace testing venture. 

“It’s been a tough several months as you all know,” Handren said of the movie theater business. In 2019, more than 5 million people went to the movies at Santikos theaters across San Antonio. This year, the chain is on track to sell only 1.5 million tickets.

Following mandated closures in March, on May 2, Santikos was one of the first theater chains in the country to reopen. Despite extensive health and safety protocols put in place that Handren said set the standard for all theaters, theater seats have remained virtually empty and screens dark, partly because few films are being released. 

As patrons stayed home and production houses postponed or released films directly to streaming services, the theater industry has lost millions in revenue, and the nation’s largest, AMC Theatres, may file for bankruptcy by the end of the year. In early October, Regal closed all its 536 theaters, including six in San Antonio.

The Quarry Cinema, a Regal theater, is temporarily closed. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Helping employees and customers feel safe as they return to the theaters is Handren’s first goal in partnering with Community Labs, he said, noting “there’s never been any outbreak [of coronavirus] traced back to any theater in the world.”

“You see what’s going on across the country – there is a third wave that’s happening,” he said. “I don’t want to risk any more employees being put in harm’s way, and catching the asymptomatic super-spreaders is really important.”

For Handren and Santikos, the task of luring patrons back to the movies isn’t just a business imperative. In 2017, according to the wishes of the chain’s founder after his passing in 2014, all Santikos theater and real estate assets were transferred to the John L. Santikos Charitable Foundation, managed by the San Antonio Area Foundation, to help local charitable organizations.

Last year, the Area Foundation awarded more than $10 million to 100 local nonprofits with the funding from the Santikos Charitable Foundation and the other 60 charitable funds the Area Foundation manages. 

“A lot of that comes from our earnings, and when we shut down theaters or close them, that money’s not there to give back,” said John Hayes, immediate past chair of the San Antonio Area Foundation and a Santikos Enterprises board member. 

When the theaters closed in March, Santikos furloughed 800 employees. It has brought about 300 back to operate the seven theaters that are now open. “So we’re trying to get back to profitability,” Hayes said. “Until [studios] release content, it’s tough to get people to want to come back … but we’ve done really well considering.”

Production companies have slowly begun to release some new movies, but not the kind with large marketing budgets and A-list stars that attract large numbers of movie-goers. 

“There are new movies coming in … so I am hopeful,” Handren said. “If more people understand that we take [coronavirus testing] very seriously and more people start coming back to the movies, that’s great for this community, because all of our profits go right back in the community.”

Testing Santikos employees, however, comes with challenges. Handren said many theater workers are part-timers who are in school, under age 18, don’t drive a car, or have disabilities. “We’re trying to accommodate every situation that’s anticipated, but it is very complicated,” he said.

It’s also costly. While the cost of testing in Somerset ISD schools was covered by Community Labs, Handren said the cost to Santikos for employee testing will total $50,000 a month. 

An employee who turns up positive for the virus will be expected to stay home and be retested before returning to work. If contact tracing determines the employee contracted the virus while in the workplace, Santikos will pay their wages, said a spokesman. 

Community Labs is housed at BioBridge Global and overseen by Chief Medical Officer Dr. Rachel Beddard.

She said the lab, using the Food and Drug Administration-authorized “gold standard” test for coronavirus testing – a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method – has been ramping up for expanded testing across the city and will soon start processing 5,000 test samples a day.

“I’m honored that [Santikos] chose to join us,” Beddard said. “Theatergoers are going to be much more assured this is a safe environment. And … how awesome is it that you can take two hours and enjoy some entertainment and relaxation and actually feel safe doing it?”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.