Returning to Movie Theaters

Movie theaters in the United States are gearing up to reopen. The New MutantsUnhinged, and of course, Tenet, are all set to hit movie theaters in the upcoming weeks, but these titles arrive under an umbrella of uncertainty. Because, as I’m sure you’re well aware, the coronavirus hasn’t gone anywhere. And there doesn’t seem to be any plan in place at the moment to deal with that.

Instead, theater chains are just hoping for the best and assuming that social distancing and other precautions will keep everyone safe. But just how safe is it to return to the movies right now? According to a recent interview with two doctors who specialize in epidemiology, it’s not safe at all.

Are you ready to go back to the movies? Scratch that – do you think it’s safe to go back to the movies? Because I’m sure many of us are more than ready to see something on the big screen again, but that doesn’t mean we should. The AV Club spoke with two experts: Dr. Anne W. Rimoin, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center For Global and Immigrant Health at the University Of California, Los Angeles, and Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, physician and epidemiologist, who is also a former city health commissioner and host of the podcast America Dissected, about the prospect of heading back to theaters. And both physicians made it abundantly clear that going to a movie theater anytime soon is a bad, bad idea.

“From what we understand, the virus is transmitted through aerosolized droplets that come out of our mouths, oftentimes when we talk or when we laugh or when we sing,” said Dr. El-Sayed. “And so, being in a room for two hours with a bunch of folks who are laughing at a movie, and where air is not being circulated in an efficient way, and where you don’t know who has been in there before you, that’s really hazardous exposure. I just don’t think it’s worth it.”

Dr. Rimoin added: “And if they’re selling concessions, people are gonna be taking off their masks and eating, and that’s tantamount to eating in a restaurant in a closed space — even worse, because you’re basically in a closed box. There aren’t even windows, there’s no ventilation.”

So should we be going back to the movies right now? “Short of renting out an entire theater, which is obviously not an option for most of us, there is no scenario in which going to a movie theater is a good idea,” said Dr. Rimoin. “If a movie theater is opening, they should close concessions and they need to have employees in the theaters with night-vision goggles to be able to really see people and make sure that nobody’s bringing in food and everyone is wearing masks at all times. That’s another reason movie theaters aren’t a good idea: You can’t control what everybody else is doing around you.”

Concessions are a huge part of how movie theaters make money, so there is probably zero chance in hell they’d want to shut them down. And most movie theaters can’t even be bothered to have good film projection or deal with rude and rowdy patrons, so I’m pretty sure they’re not going to want to break out some night-vision goggles to keep an eye on people.

But if you refuse to accept this, and are dead-set on hitting up a theater,  Dr. El-Sayed says: “I’d tell people to wear a mask and keep it on the entire time. And do everything touchless: Buy your ticket online, have it on your phone, don’t let them touch your phone when they scan it. Don’t spend any time in the common spaces: Go straight to your theater, sit as far away from folks as you possibly can. I agree concessions should be closed, and they should be wiping down the entire theater in between every screening.”

So what’s the solution? Dr. Rimoin has praise for “drive-in theaters springing up all over the place” and “outdoor screenings,” while Dr. El-Sayd adds: “Outdoor movie theaters, or watching a movie in your car, those are great. But the safest thing is to stay home and watch it on Netflix. We have to remember that it’s not just our risks that we’re talking about. It’s about whether or not we are serving as a vessel to spread it to people who may not be as healthy.”

I’m incredibly frustrated with the industry right now. Studios and theaters had months to try to figure something out, and the best they’ve come up with is “We’re going to make people skip a seat.” Studios and theaters should be embracing the idea of pop-up drive-ins – hell, if Walmart can turn their parking lots into drive-ins, there’s no reason theater chains can’t try to do the same. Instead, theaters and studios seem content to toss the dice and hope for the best, and, based on the experts quoted above, that’s probably a terrible idea.

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