GOP senator and doctor on AMC theater policy: 'People ought to be wearing masks in those situations'

Key Points
  • Republican Sen. John Barrasso told CNBC he is concerned about AMC Entertainment's decision not to require face masks in its theaters. 
  • "You're talking about a confined space where people are there for extended periods of time, breathing essentially the same air," Barrasso, who is a doctor, said Friday on "Squawk Box." 
  • Barrasso said he thinks it would be better for business if masks are required, because people may be reluctant to attend a theater if not everyone is wearing a face covering. 
Sen. John Barrasso: I'm concerned about businesses not requiring masks

Sen. John Barrasso, who is a doctor, told CNBC on Friday that he is concerned about AMC Entertainment's decision not to require face masks in its theaters. 

"I have a lot of concerns about that," the Wyoming Republican said on "Squawk Box." "You're talking about a confined space where people are there for extended periods of time, breathing essentially the same air." 

Barrasso made his remarks Friday morning before AMC announced it was reversing course and would now mandate guests wear masks in its theaters. 

Barrasso, who was previously president of the Wyoming Medical Society, compared movie theaters to being on an airplane during the coronavirus pandemic. "I think people's increased risk is there. People ought to be wearing masks in those situations," he said. 

AMC recently announced plans to open most of its movie theaters in mid-July. But its CEO, Adam Aron, had started to face criticism after saying the company did not plan to require movie attendees to don face masks. Aron, in an interview with Variety published Thursday, partly attributed the initial decision to political concerns. 

"We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy," Aron told Variety, an entertainment trade publication. "We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary. We think that the vast majority of AMC guests will be wearing masks. When I go to an AMC feature, I will certainly be wearing a mask and leading by example."

Public health experts say that wearing a face mask is critical in helping limit the spread of Covid-19. The virus can be spread through respiratory droplets from a sneeze or cough, and studies suggest face masks can provide a barrier. 

But there is a partisan divide about masks. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they wear one, according to a CNBC poll last month. And President Donald Trump, who has largely refused to wear a mask in public, told The Wall Street Journal this week he believes some people wear masks to "signal disapproval of him."

Barrasso, who spent 24 years as an orthopedic surgeon, said he thinks requiring masks would actually be better for business since people might not feel comfortable going to a theater unless they know everyone is wearing a mask.

"I think people are going to be reluctant to spend their money and to go sit in a confined space for a couple of hours, breathing the same air as a lot of folks who aren't wearing masks," he said. 

A medical worker wearing a mask walks near the AMC movie theater in Times Square amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 7, 2020 in New York City.
Alexi Rosenfeld | Getty Images

AMC is requiring its employees to wear face coverings, and the company said it is enhancing its cleaning and sanitation practices. It said it would also limit seating capacity to promote social distancing. 

Representatives for AMC did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment on Barrasso's remarks. 

In general, Barrasso said, people feeling safe going out, and resuming activities is important to the U.S. economic recovery. At the same time, he also contended that businesses should receive enhanced liability protection, provided they are in compliance with public health rules. He said that is a key component he wants in any potential coronavirus relief packages from Congress. 

"I'd think you would want to make sure you're providing liability protection for businesses that are following the prescribed guidelines and make sure that we just don't have an explosion of lawsuits if somebody says, 'Yeah, I went and shopped in that store or I went to that school or I went to that doctor and now I have coronavirus,'" he said. "I think we need protection that is not there today."  

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