In business - as in life - some situations leave you with two painful choices. Neither choice will lead to an entirely happy conclusion and both choices will lead to some level of discomfort and inconvenience. So in the end, the best choice is generally the one that is both the moral and intellectual winner. If you know that whatever choice you make is going to result in some unhappy customers, then you should at least make the choice that is the easiest to live with in the long run. Not the least painful option, not the one that has the easiest to swallow consequences. Which choice is the RIGHT one to do if you lived in a world where both choices resulted in no downsides whatsoever?
Adam Anon, the CEO and President of AMC Theatres announced in an email to customers on Thursday evening that the movie theater chain is doing a partial reopening of most of its U.S. theaters on July 15th. He outlined an extensive list of measures and procedures the company plans to implement in order to make the experience as safe as possible for customers. The capacity of the theaters will be reduced to 30% or less, the food and beverage menu will be restricted, theaters will undergo an extensive cleaning regime in between screenings, social distance standards will be in place and employees will undergo daily health screenings and be required to wash their hands every twenty minutes.
But while employees will be required to wear masks, the new AMC guidelines only recommend customers wear masks. It's a decision that Anon explained in interviews with Variety and several media outlets this way:
"We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy," said Aron. "We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary. We think that the vast majority of AMC guests will be wearing masks. When I go to an AMC feature, I will certainly be wearing a mask and leading by example."
The reality is that whether any of us like it or not, masks have become a political issue and it's driven by the same dynamics that have shaped a lot of the political discussions this country has had over the past twenty years. Political conservatives have developed a sophisticated outrage machine that makes any company wary of getting on the radar of the people who have figured out to make a living by pretending to be upset.
You can draw a straight line from the ginned up protests in Florida during the controversial voting recounts of the 2000 presidential election to the secretly funded and faux grassroots origins of the Tea Party to today's loud refusals to wear a mask in public and enclosed spaces. There is a small subset of the American public who have become convinced that they are all Mel Gibson in "Braveheart," throwing away their masks as they loudly scream "Freedom!" Thanks to conservative pundits who often see the mask question more of political wedge issue than a scientific question, some people see agreeing to wear a mask as a win by the Left or some hard-to-follow infringement on their constitutional rights.
Aside from the fact that there is now plenty of scientific data to show wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to slow down the spread of COVID-19, the constitutional argument is just impressively misguided. It's the legal equivalent to a part of society suddenly deciding that wearing pants is a political construct imposed by the Deep State and George Soros. No Conservative would seriously make the argument that the Revolutionary War was fought so Americans could let it all swing free in public. But yet here we are, arguing over a far less crazy idea that most Americans seem to support.
To be fair, AMC Theatres is not the only movie chain to decide not to require the wearing of masks by customers. Both the Cinemark and Regal chains have made a similar decision, although neither company publicly disclosed the reasoning behind the decision. But given that AMC is an industry leader, it's likely that the rest of industry would fall in line if the chain mandated mask wearing.
As I said at the beginning of this, I'm sympathetic to companies looking for a way to thread the needle between subsets of their customer base. And it appears that AMC - like many other large American companies - have decided that making mask-wearing optional will lead to the least amount of confrontation and anger. And it's not an unreasonable bet. While you would be hard-pressed to find an example of an unhappy customer confronting store employees because the business doesn't require masks, it's increasingly common to see angry outbursts from customers who scream at employees that wearing a mask is unconstitutional, bad for their health, a constraint of their freedom or somehow an affront to God. So most businesses opt for the choice that brings the least amount of immediate pain.
And that's where we are in 2020. Companies making business decision based on how pissy Sean Hannity will be following their decision. Or whether the President will decide that it's worth tweeting his unhappiness. These decisions aren't about what's moral or courageous or even good for business. It's all about mitigating discomfort.
The sad consequence of this cowardly decision is that it will lead to a bigger revenue drop for movie theaters than they'd face if they required face masks. You aren't going to find a large pool of moviegoers deciding that they'll buy more tickets now that the crowds can gather in small rooms without masks for two hours. But I suspect there are going to be a lot of customers who are already hesitant about the movie experience during a pandemic and who will decide that the health risks of a potentially mask-less audience is simply not worth it.
Courage is business isn't always rewarded. But this is one situation where the brave choice was also the correct one. And AMC Theatres, along with many of its rivals, has chosen expediency over wisdom.