To cut! Popcorn and sweets ban hits virus recovery in French cinemas

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MARLY-LE-ROI, France (AP) — No more nibbling, crunching and sipping at the cinema in France: The country’s increasingly fierce fight against an unprecedented surge in coronavirus infections is bringing an end to eating and to drink in French cinemas, just as they show signs of recovery from the brutal economic bashing of lockdowns last year.

The COVID-19 measures which will come into force on Monday, once the New Year celebrations in France are over, will mean a forced rest for popcorn machines and ice creams left in cold storage. The ban of at least three weeks on eating and drinking also applies to theatres, sports facilities and public transport.

For theater owners hoping to attract moviegoers who have switched to home viewing during the pandemic, not being able to tempt them with candy and soft drinks is another blow. French cinemas have sold 96 million tickets in eight months of reopening this year, a jump of 47% compared to 2020. But ticket sales are still down 55% compared to 2019, before the pandemic, the Center national du cinema et de l’image en mouvement said on Thursday in its look at the annual sales of French cinemas.

Benoit Ciné Distribution, which supplies 70% of French cinemas with popcorn, delicacies and drinks, has been overwhelmed by both postponements of orders and requests for delivery from cinemas which expected good sales on last weekend before the food and drink ban, with “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Matrix Resurrections” appearing on billboards.

“It’s like being told to hit the emergency brake on a high-speed train,” said Vincent Meyer, director at Benoit.

Against raging coronavirus infections, the government hopes its latest measures will also put a damper on the fast-spreading omicron variant, but without derailing France’s economic recovery which is attracting the votes of President Emmanuel Macron, in the face of a re-election in April.

In addition to the ban on eating and drinking, there will again be limits on the number of people in public places, with no more than 2,000 people allowed inside and 5,000 outside. The limits do not apply to campaign rallies, infuriating some musicians who will no longer be allowed to perform in front of standing crowds. Some have suggested, half-jokingly, that they might rebrand their concerts as political rallies.

The death toll from COVID-19 in France already stands at more than 123,000 people. New infections are higher than they have ever been and hospitals are again overloaded with seriously ill people. Many health experts had called for tougher measures than those announced by the government this week, with some pushing for further school and business closures. France reported another 206,243 coronavirus infections on Thursday, just below the record of 208,000 cases set on Wednesday.

Michel Enten, director of the Le Fontenelle cinema in the town of Marly-le-Roi west of Paris, was relieved to stay open, even if he will no longer be able to sell cotton candy, popcorn, ice cream and drinks. He says he lost about half of his clientele during the pandemic. He expects the food and drink ban to hit big cinemas particularly hard and says it could even help draw fans to smaller, artsy cinemas like his.

“There are a lot of people who hate hearing the sound of popcorn in auditoriums,” he said. “Maybe we’ll gain some new moviegoers, people who used to watch Netflix and say, ‘Now there’s no more popcorn, let’s go to the movies’.”

Moviegoers said they understood the need for new measures, although some struggled to see any logic in not being able to indulge their sweet cravings in cinemas or theaters while restaurants are still allowed to serving food and drinks.

“It’s going to be weird to go to the movies and do without all these little moments,” said Vincent Bourdais as he queued at Marly-le-Roi for “Spiderman”.

“Often, when we imagine the cinema, we think of the room, the beautiful posters, the popcorn, the smells.”

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