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I went to the movies during a pandemic. Here’s what it was like.

Studio Movie Grill in Seminole is the first movie theater in Tampa Bay to reopen.

After three months of coronavirus-induced darkness, a single movie theater flickered back to life Friday in Tampa Bay.

Other theater chains plan to follow. Regal Cinemas reopens theaters July 10. AMC was to open July 15, but pushed it back to July 30. With no new releases, they’ll show classics and movies from a few months ago until the July 10 premiere of Unhinged, starring Russell Crowe.

But history will remember that local screens lit up first at Studio Movie Grill in Seminole, which kicked things off with a $1 matinee of Space Jam.

For the uncultured, Space Jam is a 1996 medical drama starring Charles Barkley, Larry Johnson and Muggsy Bogues as NBA stars whose basketball skills are drained by a mysterious ailment – possibly a virus – ultimately found to be caused by aliens.

It’s a timely film. In one scene, the commissioner cancels NBA games due to “germs.” (Conspiracy theorists, take note: Space Jam was, according to Wikipedia, released on VHS on March 11, 1997. The current NBA season was suspended on March 11, 2020!)

There’s also a subplot with Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan.

Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny in 1995. [AP]

I volunteered to go to the first movie to play indoors on a big screen in Tampa Bay since the coronavirus shutdown because, to me, going to a movie theater is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

There’s the feeling that because you’ve left the house you are “doing something,” even if that something is sitting sedentary, just in a larger room with a larger screen.

There’s the way it forces you to put your phone away and be fully present (or at least it should, you heathens). There’s all the potential for the future: Every single new trailer makes you say, Ooh, I’d see that movie, even though many of them will be terrible.

And there’s the shared, communal experience, which for introverts who like people but dread actually talking to them, is a true, life-giving joy.

For movie geeks, the most bittersweet tweet of this pandemic may have been a movie podcaster asking people to “Tell me your favorite moment you ever experienced in a movie theater.” If you need proof movie theaters are great, read all 7,000 responses.

Usually, crowded is better. There’s a current of excitement that runs through a sold-out auditorium at a Friday night premiere of a big new movie. It takes me back to the first night I had my first car. I drove it to a screening of The Sixth Sense.

But crowded is not better during a pandemic. Arriving at Studio Movie Grill for Space Jam on a day when Florida announced a record 8,942 new COVID-19 infections, I secretly hoped the theater would be completely empty.

“There’s actually a lot of people in Space Jam,” the ticket attendant said to another employee as I walked in. So much for that.

There were about a dozen people in the auditorium, including adult men in Orlando Magic Shaquille O’Neal and Toon Squad (the Bugs Bunny team) jerseys. They were unmasked. A few rows above was a family with three young kids, all of them in crisp, white N95s.

The theater has social distancing rules. There are sanitizer stations. They only sell tickets for every other row.

When selecting your seat, via the contactless phone app, you can’t pick one right next to another party. All the employees had rubber gloves and were wearing their masks properly.

Masks were required for customers too, but, per county rules, not when eating or drinking. That could be the entire length of a movie if you’re a popcorn and soda person.

I purchased Raisinets, wanting something that came sealed in plastic, but couldn’t bring myself to eat them until I’d sanitized my hands in the car on the way home.

It was good to be back in a movie theater, so good, but the virus was a specter that hung over everything.

I was hyper aware of the person crunching chips at the other end of the row. My glasses fogged because of my mask, but I was not about to futz with them.

The climax of Space Jam, in which Jordan and the Looney Tunes play a high-stakes game of basketball against cartoon monsters, was absolutely riveting – which may have something to do with the lack of live sports these days – but my mind still wandered.

I kept trying to make my body small in order to touch less surface area on the seat. I could not bring myself to enter the restroom. A guy coughed, and I glanced up at the ceiling, wondering how the position of the vents affected the airflow in the room.

Upon exiting, I asked an employee if many tickets had been sold yet. She said at that point, about 5:30 p.m., 140 were sold for the day. Some people clearly are ready to go to the movies.

It turns out that I’m not.

Maybe, if there still isn’t a vaccine by my birthday in February, I’ll pay the $200 that Studio Movie Grill now charges to let people rent out a whole auditorium for themselves. Much like seeing a movie with strangers right now, it would probably be fun, but still not the same as before.

For now, movie theaters plan to screen a mix of older recent releases and classics, like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, which means it’s a good time to catch something you’ve never seen on a big screen but always wanted to. It also means you can still technically see newer movies at home on demand.

While studios have opted to release some films for home streaming, two of the summer’s most anticipated movies, Disney’s live-action Mulan, and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet are expected to be the blockbusters that draw people back to theaters. They were both set to release in July, but this week both were pushed back for another month.

Studio Movie Grill’s other Tampa Bay location, at Tampa’s University Mall, opens Friday.

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