LAMAR, Mo. — Theaters went dark nationwide in early March when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing the country into a mandatory lockdown. Only two drive-in theaters, in Carthage and Lamar, have kept moviegoers satisfied during most of this lull.

But restrictions are slowly easing. Two area indoor theaters have recently opened to the public, while a third is showing movies outdoors. Next month, cineplexes are set to open nationwide as the Hollywood movie machine slowly cranks up to speed.

For more than a month now, the Plaza Theater, located in downtown Lamar, has been showing movies to limited audiences since May 8. During that time, the single-screen, historical theater was the only movie house in a 100-mile radius open to the paying public, said Scott Kelley, the Plaza Theater’s manager and projectionist.

Many of the moviegoers — some traveling as far as Pittsburg, Kansas, to catch a film — have praised Kelley for opening early during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Oh, yeah, some of them say, ‘We’re just glad to have something to do’ and that sort of thing,” he said.

The theater is cleaned daily, with all exposed surfaces wiped down after each showing. Though the theater can easily seat 358, Kelley sells just 90 tickets per showing. Inside the theater, seats are cordoned off to maximize social distancing. Many of the COVID-19-related rules the Plaza has in place will be mimicked by corporate-run theaters, such as AMC and Regal, in the coming weeks.

“Right now we could probably go full capacity, but we’re not,” he said. “We’re still at limited capacity, though we may increase that” at some point. His hesitation stems from a recent spike of COVID-19 cases in the Joplin area.

Officials with Walt Disney Pictures recently opened the company’s movie vault to allow theaters the opportunity to screen Disney movies until the much-delayed 2020 blockbuster season arrives late next month. Through July 17, the Plaza will be featuring “The Avengers,” “Deadpool,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Iron Man.”

“(Disney) normally doesn’t do that,” Kelley said. “Once they hit video, they don’t allow their movies to play in theaters. But this year they’re allowing it due to the pandemic.”

Plaza Theater tickets are $8.

The Route 66 Movie Theater, located in downtown Webb City, opened its doors to the public several weekends ago. Co-owner Scott Hutson said they’ve finally been able to debut the theater’s new laser projection system, which was installed around the same time the pandemic lockdown took effect nationwide.

“The projector has been great; the picture’s been absolutely wonderful,” Hutson said. “That was one of the reasons why I hesitated to even open up until we had a new movie (such as Disney’s much-anticipated ‘Mulan’) because you want to have that wow factor with the new projector.”

Still, Hutson and his wife, Nancy, chose to open ahead of the new movie summer because they wanted to work out any bugs with the new projection system and new COVID-19 restrictions — the single-screen theater that normally holds 315 is limited to about 100 people, every other row is closed, and there are two empty seats on either side of a paying customer or group. The theater was the first in the Joplin area to offer reserved seating; customers can choose online what seat they want for maximum safety.

Hutson said they chose to open early in order to give loyal customers something to do this summer that’s both fun and safe.

“We’re amazed at how respectful they have been about our (COVID-19) rules, and we haven’t had any pushback on that,” he said, adding that customers have said numerous times they can’t wait to come back. “They are just thankful there’s an option for them.”

Tickets are $7.

While the theater inside Joplin’s only independent movie theater, Bookhouse Cinema, remains closed to the public — with the exception of private parties — owners Holly and Brad Crane have recently adopted outdoor screenings of movies, which have proven popular.

“Midsommar” and “Jurassic Park” were screened last weekend in the spacious yard behind the building at 715 E. Broadway St. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” will be screened this Thursday, Friday and Sunday, while “Get Out” will be shown next weekend.

“We are lucky enough to have a pretty broad space, so social distancing is easier to execute,” Brad Crane said.

Tickets are $5.

Other theaters

• AMC Theaters officials announced that 450 of its 600 theaters — which could include the Pittsburg 8 theater in Pittsburg, Kansas — would reopen on July 10, with reduced seating, new cleaning procedures and contact- and cash-free concessions.

• Regal, owner of Joplin’s Northstar 14, recently announced a July 10 opening for “most” of its nationwide theaters, which includes a set of new coronavirus safety protocols, including reduced capacity, wearing masks and cleaning seats between screenings.

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