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Farmington's Allen 8 cinema targets May 7 reopening, scrambles to secure adequate staffing

Challenges remain, but company official pleased about progress

FARMINGTON — The long wait for movie fans in San Juan County is nearly over.

Russell Allen of Allen Theatres Inc. said April 30 his company plans to reopen its Allen 8 cinema, 1819 E. 20th St. in Farmington, on Friday, May 7, ending a closure of approximately 13 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic and signaling another step in the return to normalcy for the community.

Allen said the company's other Farmington property, the Animas 10 at the Animas Valley Mall, likely would remain closed until midsummer.

Company officials weren't planning on opening the Allen 8 until Memorial Day weekend, he said, but when New Mexico officials announced revisions to the state's four-tier, color-coded system of business restrictions on April 28, the decision was made to open the cinema three weeks earlier. Under the state's changes, San Juan County moved from the Yellow Level, the second-most restrictive category, to the Green Level, the second-least restrictive level.

Allen emphasized that the plan to open the Allen on May 7 is just that — a plan — and he cautioned that any change in circumstances could delay that date.

The company faces some challenges in having the Allen 8 ready to open by then, he said, chief among them the securing of adequate staffing.

"Normally this time of year, we'd had 100 staff members there," he said of the theater. "This time, we'll be happy to have 10 or 15."

Theater management will be seeking to rehire several laid-off employees, he said. But he expects the company will have trouble luring back many of those workers, who he said have been disincentivized to return to work under the terms of the recent COVID-19 economic relief package passed by Congress.

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"I would guess the labor market is as tight there as it is here," Allen said, referring to Las Cruces, where he lives.

The company isn't quite ready to reopen its other local cinema, the Animas 10, he said.

"My intuition says it will probably be around the Fourth of July before we probably get the other one open," he said.

Allen said he anticipates it will take that long to get an adequate number of employees hired for that property and for film studios to begin releasing enough films to make the opening of a second theater in town worthwhile.

Lingering concerns

Relieved as he is to see Allen Theatres resume operations in Farmington — the city where the company, which operates 16 cinemas across three states, was birthed — Allen still has some concerns about operating restrictions, especially in regard to his properties in New Mexico. He cited Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's statement on April 28 that she anticipates that the state will be open by the end of June.

"We're a little leery about what the definition of 'open' is," he said, explaining that he still fears there will be capacity limits in place of 50% or even 33% for his theaters. "Hopefully, someone will ask her that question. … The yo-yo we've gone through the last two months is ridiculous and proves our leaders don't know what's going on."

Allen said his company has had various plans in place to open different properties across the state in that time but has seen those schemes shot down or altered because of changes to the four-tier system. He said the company's Roswell theater was open for a week, then had to close again because of a change in the status of Chaves County.

Allen Theatres also was planning on showing a new indie film, "Walking with Herb," at its temporary drive-in location in Las Cruces this week, he said, and spent a significant amount of money constructing a screen and erecting fencing around the perimeter of the property.

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Then came the governor's midweek press conference, resulting in changes that allowed Allen Theatres to open its indoor facilities. Allen said the company spent the last two days tearing down the newly installed fencing, since there was no need for the drive-in property anymore.

"We wasted a thousand bucks," he said.

Allen Theatres resumed operations at one of its Las Cruces cinemas on April 30, he said, and public response was decent, he said, considering the short notice and the relative lack of Hollywood product that is available for screening.

Nevertheless, Allen touted the escapist nature of a current blockbuster release and said he is pleased to be able to offer it to those who are starved for big-screen entertainment.

"'Godzilla vs. Kong' will definitely keep you from thinking about the real world," he said, laughing.

'A minefield for businesses'

Allen also worries about how much longer the state's mask mandate will remain in place and how his employees will enforce it. He said that hasn't been something he has had to contend with up until now because his theaters have been closed. But he fears his staff will have confrontations with customers who refuse to wear a mask, and he worries about whether his company will be held responsible by the state if that happens, describing the situation as a minefield for businesses.

"We've got to figure out this mask thing," he said. "I'm calling it extortion. Businesses are being extorted by the threat of closure and fines to enforce (the state government's) mask mandate. That's not fair."

Otherwise, Allen Theatres is well prepared to reopen, he said. Automatic sanitizing sprayers were installed in all the chain's auditoriums shortly after the pandemic began, he said, and hand sanitizing stations and sneeze guards have been installed at all concession stands. The start times for all films have been staggered to reduce the size of crowds in the lobby at any given time.

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Additionally, he said, the system of purchasing tickets has been streamlined as much as possible, and Allen encouraged customers to buy their tickets online in advance to avoid the possibility of having to stand in line.

"That's going to make going to the movies easier and give them one less thing they have to worry about," he said.

While the number of new releases has increased over the last year, Allen said he doesn't anticipate the market really loosening until Memorial Day weekend. Choices could remain relatively limited until then, but by late May, movie fans can expect to see a steady stream of new material.

"That's very comforting," he said. "Having a big (theater) opening is one thing. But what's the first thing you do? You think, 'What do I want to watch?' That's the driving force of everything. As much as you want to go, you're not going to go (if nothing appeals to you)."

Allen said the last year been very difficult for his nearly 110-year-old family business. But he is proud the company has survived, and he responded quickly when asked to list his takeaways from this chapter in his life.

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"That we were raised right, and we saved for a rainy day that turned out to be 13 months," he said. "I'm really proud we were prepared for something like this. … We still have money in the bank, and we're ready to go and we can entertain our communities again."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.