Four people were in the audience Monday for an afternoon showing of “Nomadland” at the Stanwood Cinemas. (Julie Muhlstein / The Herald)

Four people were in the audience Monday for an afternoon showing of “Nomadland” at the Stanwood Cinemas. (Julie Muhlstein / The Herald)

Masked in a nearly empty theater, a movie outing at last

Just four of us were in the audience for a matinee showing of “Nomadland” at Stanwood Cinemas.

There we were in a dark theater, a cavernous space with just two other film goers sitting several rows back from ours.

When the pandemic shutdown began, I couldn’t imagine going out to see a movie. The idea of sitting with strangers in a theater, crowded or not, has been at the bottom of my list for months. I’ve paid little attention to what’s open and what’s not.

Entertainment? For a year, it’s been watching Netflix and “Jeopardy,” reading good books and walking the dog.

Yet on Sunday, I watched enough of the “Golden Globe Awards” to catch the bug. I wanted to see something — something great — on a screen larger than the one at our house. With Monday off, I found a matinee showing of “Nomadland” at the Stanwood Cinemas.

For some, tiptoeing back to normalcy might mean returning to gym workouts or dining in a fun restaurant. For me, that first step was a movie outing as I await an overdue second dose of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine.

We bought tickets online before leaving home and simply showed a cellphone photo of the barcode to a young woman at the entrance. I didn’t eat or drink anything in the theater and wore two masks the whole time — masks are required.

To me it felt safe. With only one other couple there, it was well within the limits of Phase 2 of the state’s Healthy Washington-Roadmap to Recovery plan that allows for 25% capacity at indoor entertainment venues.

Stanwood Cinemas is owned by Far Away Entertainment, which is based on Bainbridge Island and operates theaters around the region. They include the Varsity and Historic Admiral in Seattle, Anacortes Cinemas, the Historic Roxy in Bremerton and others. The Stanwood theater’s general manager could not be reached for comment.

“Nomadland,” based on a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, is a gritty but beautiful look at life on the open road, its humanity, poverty and freedom. With an unflinching, compassionate performance by Frances McDormand, as a widow from a shut-down company town who makes a van her home, it won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture in the drama category and for its director, Chloé Zhao.

Frances McDormand in “Nomadland.” (Searchlight Pictures)

Frances McDormand in “Nomadland.” (Searchlight Pictures)

It’s available for streaming on Hulu, which we don’t have. Better to take in the film’s sweeping Western landscapes in a theater. But theaters aren’t open everywhere.

“Regal theaters are temporarily closed,” says a message on the websites of the Regal Everett, Regal Marysville and Regal Cinebarre in Mountlake Terrace. A recorded phone message says the suspension of operations at all Regal theaters “is in response to an increasingly challenging theatrical landscape and sustained key market closures.”

The AMC Alderwood Mall 16, however, is open and following what its website describes as AMC Safe & Clean policies that include social distancing, frequent cleaning and mask wearing — right down to the types of masks allowed (no neck gaiters, open-chin bandanas or masks with vents). For a dollar, anyone without a proper mask can get one at the theater.

The Edmonds Theater shows movies Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, according to its website. For drive-in fans, the Blue Fox on Whidbey Island is also open for weekend crowds, with masks required in line, and in the snack bar and restrooms.

On the Stanwood Cinemas screen, information about an effort called CinemaSafe was shown along with movie previews. The CinemaSafe program was commissioned by the National Association of Theater Owners to promote guidelines supporting a safe return to the movies.

Along with masks, social distancing and reduced capacity, CinemaSafe protocols call for employee health training and hand-washing, available hand sanitizer, enhanced cleaning, air filtration, modified concessions and mobile ticketing.

In a dark theater, it’s up to audience members to take care of themselves and others.

“You can have a lot of recommendations, but at the end of the day, it’s really human behavior,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California San Francisco, in a comment about CinemaSafe to the Los Angeles Times in November.

Human behavior was just fine at Stanwood Cinemas, far better than I’ve noticed from some supermarket shoppers.

Lish Troha and Rusty Johnston, the couple seated far from us on Monday, hadn’t been to a movie since August, and that was to the Blue Fox Drive-In. Troha, 33, lives between La Conner and Anacortes, while 29-year-old Johnston was visiting from Hawaii.

Johnston didn’t want to watch “Nomadland” on Hulu, although he said he has the streaming service.

After the credits rolled, before he and Troha got up to leave, Johnston said, “They made movies to be seen this way.”

Julie Muhlstein:

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