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Is It Safe to Go to a Movie Theater Right Now?

“If you can’t go to the movies and relax, what are you supposed to do?” Photo: Alain Benainous/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

As health experts and government officials continue to encourage social distancing as a method of combating coronavirus infection, some of the “large public gatherings” to avoid have seemed obvious: sporting events, conventions, film festivals. And some have been explicitly pinpointed; in New York, governor Andrew Cuomo banned gatherings of over 500 people, effectively shutting down Broadway theaters entirely.

With an eye on public health — and presumably, on an assuredly deflated box office — a number of upcoming tentpole movies (including Fast and Furious 9, No Time to Die, A Quiet Place Part II, Mulan, New Mutants) have delayed their releases, and some smaller films are following suit. But what about movie-going in general? Is it safe, at least for the time being, to slip into your local theater for a couple hours of escape? Or are you putting yourself at risk in these public spaces as well?

Should I Go to the Movie Theater Right Now?

“I have significant problems with any groups that are larger than 20,” says Dr. Robert Lahita, who is Chairman of Medicine at St. Joseph’s Health in New Jersey, Professor of Medicine at New York Medical College, and Adjunct Professor of Medicine at Rutgers. “[Coronavirus is] going to have a major impact on every industry, but the movie industry in particular. If you can’t go to the movies and relax, what are you supposed to do? But obviously they’re very crowded. I think people should wait and give it a two week period — maybe until April 1 — to re-group, because we don’t know how long this thing’s going to last. We really don’t.”

What About Matinees?

Not everyone goes to the movie theater during peak hours; some patrons prefer the weekday matinees, when cinemas are sparsely populated to begin with. Is attending one of these screenings safer than, say, going to a busy multiplex on a Saturday night?

It’s safer, Lahita grants, but still not necessarily safe. “I just know when somebody is in the movie and it’s dark and they’re going to be coughing behind you, you just don’t know what these people have,” he says. “There are a lot of asymptomatic patients, a lot of patients that don’t have symptoms that are infectious.”

If I Do Go, How Can I Maximize Safety?

For those who still want to go — who might just need to get out of the home and avoid stir-craziness — there are some small steps to take for maximum safety. “Similar to sitting on an airplane, if you’re going to go, you just bring the wipes and you wipe everything down,” Lahita advises. “You should wipe the arms, you should wipe everything. I would personally bring a lot of Purell and I might even wear gloves and a mask.”

According to the CDC, the novel coronavirus may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials. So what should you do should you come across non-plastic seats at the theater? “If you’re viral infected and you seed the cloth [of a seat] with your virus, the person who sits down [next] is going to [be exposed],” he says. “There’s no way you can decontaminate a cloth seat [with a wipe]. So that’s a bit of a problem.”

What About the Concession Stand?

Okay, and what about the concession stand? “I think you should go and eat as much as you can!” Lahita jokes. “And if they have a bar, you should have a drink!” In all seriousness, he simply doesn’t know whether frequenting a concession stand that already abides by certain food and safety precautions would increase your chances of contracting the virus, admitting that he frequents his own hospital cafeteria and wonders whether it’s been contaminated.

Reasonable safety precautions are important, he adds, but he ultimately agrees with Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: “Tony says everybody’s eventually going to get infected. But remember that 80 percent of us are not even going to show anything. [Editor’s Note: Fauci told a U.S. Senate Subcommittee that 80 percent of people who have been infected by the novel coronavirus “spontaneously recover” without specific intervention.] And that’s the problem with this: we’re going to be infected, but we’re going to have no symptoms or minimal symptoms, so you’re not going to know who’s infected and who’s not.”

“I’m not worried about the concession stand,” he concedes.

Anything Else We Should Know?

Some theaters have emailed their patrons, detailing their extensive and frequent deep-cleaning of auditoriums and high-traffic areas, outlining policies that require employees to wear of gloves and engage in thorough and frequent hand-washing. Lahita says those are good measures. “I think these steps will make a tremendous difference because, as you know, theaters rarely [deep] clean more than once a day.” He would add one key component: a “disinfectant mist” of aerosol. “That’s used in South Korea and China,” he explains, “a disinfectant that’s aerosol-ed on the cushions can then decontaminate the cushions.”

Ultimately, for all of his concerns, Lahita still doesn’t think movie theaters should close. “I would hope not, anyhow,” he says, “because you know what, this is doing enough damage to the entertainment industry to last a long time. I certainly think that the patrons should take care and not expose themselves unnecessarily, but you can’t stop living.”

On the other hand, he shrugs, “I have to be honest, I watch Netflix on my own big screen at the house, and I am just delighted to sit there with my wife and have a nice drink and watch a movie.”

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Is It Safe to Go to a Movie Theater Right Now?