This story has been updated.

While many movie theater chains across the country shuttered their businesses earlier this week to encourage social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Santikos Entertainment – the largest chain in San Antonio – held out on closing for as long as possible. After Mayor Ron Nirenberg issued a new emergency order Wednesday evening, the company’s nine locations were forced to close as well.

The entertainment company based in San Antonio owns and operates eight theaters across the city and one in Cibolo, and boasts more than 1,500 employees. Santikos officials did not respond to multiple attempts for comment, but the company released a statement on its social media accounts Tuesday, and was answering questions from Facebook Live Thursday.

“While we’ve been anticipating that for almost two weeks, and planning for this day, where we had to tell our employees that we’re not open anymore, it was not a fun message to have to deliver, … that we are closed,” said CEO Tim Handren on the livestream.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg declared the City’s third public health emergency Monday restricting gatherings of more than 50 people, at the time listing movie theaters among the notable exceptions to the mandate, which also excluded schools and grocery stores. Santikos continued to operate during this time.

The new measures aim to prevent the spread of COVID-19, ordering all non-essential businesses to close at midnight Thursday. Also in the expanded list were bars, lounges, nightclubs, taverns, gyms, health studios, bowling alleys, and bingo parlors.

Grocery stores and restaurant drive-throughs, along with carry out options, will be allowed to remain in business. The City Council will consider extending the Mayor’s seven-day declaration at Thursday’s regularly scheduled meeting.

“We are navigating some choppy waters right now,” Handren said. “The message we delivered to our employees this morning was definitely with a heavy heart, that we are closed by order of the government, we told all our employee’s they’ll be paid for the next two weeks – this is not a termination notice.”

Handren added paying them for two more weeks gets employees into April, which allows the employees access to their medical benefits. Employees have also been directed to other outlets to receive financial assistance, whether from the state or other avenues.

When preparing to send the message to more than 700 employees, Handren said he paused, knowing it’s a scary and hard message to receive. A lot of other theater chains who shut down early in the week stopped paying their employees immediately and ended those employee’s benefits, which didn’t seem right, Handren added.

“We want to put [our employees] first,” Handren said. “We intentionally delayed … because we wanted to keep our employees on the payroll.”

Regal Cinemas, AMC Theaters, and Alamo Drafthouse announced Monday the closure of their theaters nationwide to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Plano-based Cinemark and New Braunfels Stars & Stripes Drive-In Theater joined the ranks Tuesday. Evo Theaters, which has one theater in Schertz and is currently building a theater on San Antonio’s Far West Side, also remained open Wednesday, as did the City Base Entertainment theater. These, too, must close according to the City’s latest orders.

Regal Cinemas operates five movie theaters in San Antonio, AMC operates two in San Antonio and one in Boerne, Alamo Drafthouse operates three in San Antonio and one in New Braunfels, and Cinemark operates two theaters in San Antonio.

Many of these company announcements came hours after state governors declared movie theaters closed for extended periods of time in their respective states following President Donald Trump’s announcement advising Americans avoid gatherings of 10 or more people earlier this week.

San Antonio healthcare professional and business owner Katie Huseman, 28, said she applauds the entertainment companies for closing their theaters.

“They should all be closed,” Huseman said. “Every single one. Social isolation is for the benefit of the community, it’s not an extended vacation.”

Ryan Cook, a 26-year-old San Antonio resident, said he saw the benefit for Santikos employees in the company’s decision to stay open a little while longer. As an Alamo Drafthouse employee, Cook said he was placed on furlough without pay until further notice on Monday, and is worried about making ends meet. 

“I was told to use my accumulated [paid time off] for the next week so that I can still maintain some sort of income,” Cook said. “I’m really upset my benefits of PTO are having to be exhausted toward the efforts of COVID-19.”

With his rent due on April 1, Cook said he has no means of being able to afford it. He has since applied to short-term jobs, unemployment benefits and SNAP, but said the whole situation feels bizarre. 

“All of this is a huge mess,” he added.

With so many theater closures, Universal Pictures announced Monday it will make some of its current film releases available on demand for $19.99 starting Friday. 

The available films will include Trolls World Tour, The Invisible Man, The Hunt and Emma, and will be available on services such as Comcast, Sky, Apple, and Amazon.

Dozens of other film openings have been postponed to the fall, including Disney’s Black Widow and Mulan, Paramount’s A Quiet Place: Part II, and MGM’s latest Bond film, No Time to Die, according to the LA Times.

In a separate statement posted on Monday, Santikos said any customers who have already bought tickets for these films can submit their purchase for a refund if the ticket was bought directly through the company. Third-party purchases through Fandango or other ticket sales companies cannot be refunded.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.