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

Dr. Robert Lahita attempts to answer all of our questions about cinema’s grand reopening this August. Photo: Alain Benainous/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

This piece has been updated with new information concerning nationwide plans to reopen movie theaters this summer.

When we last checked in with our public-health expert on the safety of returning to theaters in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, his outlook was bleak: “It’s like Russian roulette,” he said. “You never know.”

That was in late June. The major theatrical chains were planning to reopen the following month, in time to lure moviegoers back with the double-whammy releases of Mulan and Tenet, then slated for late-July openings. But those plans were scuttled as COVID-19 continued to spread across the country, and the death toll rose. Since then, Disney has moved Mulan to its streaming platform, Warner Bros. has rescheduled (and re-rescheduled) Tenet’s debut date, and cineplexes in many states have remained closed. AMC finally began the staggered reopening of its locations Thursday, with Regal and Marcus Theaters following suit Friday; all are hoping to have significant screens available for Tenet’s American rollout, which is now scheduled to begin Labor Day weekend.

So I again rang up Dr. Robert Lahita, 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, to discuss whether or not we should be rushing to the box office this week.

Should I Go to a Movie Theater Right Now?

“We’ve seen 30,000 new cases popping up in the southern states and the Sunbelt,” Lahita told us back in June. “It seemed there was a flattened curve, and then all of a sudden, we’re going up again. So these guys are going to open theaters when we have an increase of infections?”

Concern over rising infection rates aside, Lahita believes basic safety measures — including socially distanced reserved seating, frequent cleaning of screening rooms, and temperature checks at the Cineplex door — will go a long way for those attempting a return to the theater. “There’s always an inherent risk, but I was actually surprised at how thorough some of the planning is,” Lahita adds of the broad strategies he’s seen.

The chains’ initial reluctance to require face masks on all guests, however, had Lahita concerned. “You’d have to be nuts” not to wear a mask, he says. “You’re with a group of strangers. Unless you’re sitting 20 or 30 feet from the other person, you run the risk of being infected. There’s no question about it. You know how the air is in a theater: It’s not circulated very well. If you don’t wear a mask, you take your chances.”

Thankfully, AMC and Regal reversed course, announcing that guests would be required to wear masks — though their present policy allows for masks to be removed while eating and drinking concessions.

But Why Are Only Some Theaters Reopening?

Lahita works in New York and New Jersey, which are not among the states where the chains will open their doors this week, since their governors have explicitly excluded movie theaters from reopening. Though New York’s positivity rate has remained below one percent for nearly two weeks, and the state and New York City are well into phase four, Governor Andrew Cuomo has kept theater doors closed, noting that “on a relative risk scale, a movie theater is less essential and poses a high risk. It is congregant. It is one ventilation system. You are seated there for a long period of time. Even if you are at 50 percent capacity with one or two seats between the two of you, this is a risk situation and … movie theaters are not that high on the list of essentials.”

“It is not an essential locale,” Lahita agrees. “But when people want to be entertained, they want to go to the theater, that’s their business,” he says, adding, “If you’re going to do phase four opening of essentially nonessential locales such as restaurants, gyms, tattoo parlors, and barbershops, I would think those would be of more risk than going to a movie theater, because of their inherent proximity to strangers.”

Should I Eat Concession-Stand Food While I’m at the Theater?

“That’s comparable to [eating from] a buffet in a restaurant,” Lahita said back in June. “There’s an interchange of money, you put your hands on the counter, you wait to get the popcorn and the soda and all that.” Though some theaters will use contactless methods for concession transactions, and others will not offer condiment stations, there is still the issue of masks — and the need to take them off to consume food and drink.

But Lahita notes that as long as theaters are enforcing reduced capacities and social-distancing measures, with empty rows and empty seats between parties, eating in a theater might not be as dangerous as you think. “The servers should be wearing a mask, no question about it,” he says. But provided the moviegoer takes their popcorn and soda to their seat and waits until they’re settled in the uniformly facing chairs to move or remove their mask, they should be fine. “Unless you’re being coughed or sneezed on by the person behind you, or the children next to you, I don’t see any major risk.”

Are Private Screenings Safer?

Some theaters (particularly the Alamo Drafthouse), in an attempt to jump-start revenue, have made their auditoriums available for private screenings, wherein small groups can rent a theater and a selection of films for a set fee (and minimum food purchase). Lahita thinks this is a smart option for wary would-be moviegoers.

“If you rent the theater out for you and your friends,” he says, “and you’ve got a 300-seat theater and there’s just five of you out there, wow, that’s like being in a ballpark. You don’t have to worry there. And you know your friends, presumably, right? You know who is and isn’t infected.”

How Much Safer Is a Drive-in Movie Theater?

As the theatrical lockdown wore on over the past several months, drive-in movie theaters have thrived, offering audiences a way to “go to the movies” while still remaining in a safe, socially distanced bubble. (Sadly, there aren’t that many left to frequent; most drive-ins were put out of business in the 1970s and ’80s by the very multiplexes that are now locked up.)

“It is perfectly safe, provided you do not leave your car,” Lahita said in June. “You would have to stock your car with food and drink. And you would have to leave the car to go to the bathroom, which of course exposes you to risk. In the summer you would have to leave the windows down, or keep the engine running for air-conditioning. With windows down, your neighbor could infect you, although that’s unlikely.”

How Do I Handle the Bathroom Situation?

Theaters like AMC and Cinemark have promised copious sanitizer distribution throughout their buildings, but Lahita warns that handwashing will remain necessary. “If you touch anything in the restroom, like the handle, the toilet, the urinal, you wipe your hands down and wash your hands after going to the bathroom,” Lahita adds. “Make sure you wash them thoroughly with soap and water, and everything should be fine.”

Should I Clean My Own Seat?

In promoting their pending reopenings, theaters have made much of their “intensified cleaning protocols.” But as surface transmissions have proven rare, some of this amounts to what The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson dubbed “hygiene theater”: “risk-reduction rituals that make us feel safer but don’t actually do much to reduce risk — even as more dangerous activities are still allowed.” Does some of this fall into that category?

“Between movies, where they run around and pick up the garbage, I think if they have some aerosolization sprays and spray the seats and stuff, that’s fine.” Lahita says. “But you’re absolutely right, there’s no major evidence that you’re going to pick up the virus from touching a pew in a church or a chair in the theater at this time. I don’t think that’s a realistic worry. We used to worry about that, but we’ve learned that the virus doesn’t live very long on these things. So between shows, disinfection is the way to go, but I don’t think during the show you have to run around and spray everybody.”

So, as before, Lahita advises bringing disinfecting wipes and wiping down your immediate seating area before settling in for a film — with one update: Back in March, he noted that plastic seats were much more cleanable with wipes — and thus safer — than their cloth counterparts. “The data now shows that cloth seats and plastic seats don’t make a difference,” he explains. “In fact, I think there was some data suggesting that cloth seats were actually better than plastic and metal. The virus doesn’t live for very long on any of these fomite kind of things. You can wipe plastic down, you can’t wipe cloth down, but cloth is not likely to be as infected; neither is plastic according to the data I’ve seen. So that’s not a big concern.”

Will Theater Reopenings Contribute to a Second Spike in Infections?

When discussing the various logistical details of a cinema reopening, you might find yourself asking a bigger question: Are theater owners acting responsibly by reopening their doors, even at limited capacity, when infection is still a risk? Are studios acting responsibly by putting out new movies, with the hope that patrons will risk their health to see them in theaters?

“That’s a real doozy of a question,” Lahita admitted in June, “because, you know, my criticism and concern right now is that these mass gatherings in Florida, in Arizona, New Mexico, and in California — people are gathering on beaches and things without masks and no social distancing. Is this pushing it? Well, I don’t want to see the movie industry die. But on the other hand, if I were them, I would prolong the release of new movies until, say, the fall because there could be a resurgence of this virus in September, October when the temperatures change again in the Northeast. So if everybody’s going to the movies, it could spike reinfection rates.”

But there are no easy answers, he insists. “I would say 70 percent of the people [infected with COVID-19] are non-symptomatic, or if they get the disease, they’re sick, but they recover at home. There’s that small percentage that’s of great concern. We don’t know who they are and we have no way to determine who they are, so that’s the scary part.”

Bottom Line: How Safe Is It to Go to a Movie Theater This Summer?

As the staggered reopening of chains begins — with Cuomo indicating that theaters “should be next” to reopen in New York — many moviegoers will soon be faced with the question of whether it’s worth risking one’s health to go back to the multiplex, no matter how badly they might want to see Tenet. But Lahita feels that as long as theaters employees and moviegoers are acting responsibly, it can be done.

“We tell them to wear a mask, we keep social distancing, you can buy food — but don’t eat the food until you get into the theater,” Lahita advises. “[Family members] can sit next to you because you’re with them all the time and you know their health situation. But the [other] people in the theater should be at least two rows apart.”

“Nothing is 100 percent safe,” Lahita adds. “But I would say you’re 95 percent safe if you go to the movies [with all of the stated measures in place]. I don’t know about live theater, because the seating there is a little closer than in a big movie theater, and that could be a little dicey. Plus, the people onstage are screaming, yelling, singing … This may actually be the first time that orchestra seats are not a good idea.”

But if you go without a mask? “It’s like Russian roulette. You never know.”

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