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Is It Safe to Go to the Movies Right Now?

It’s a matter of costs vs. benefits… and the costs of the big screen are high.

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Going out to the movies is one of the great escapes for families. It isn’t so much about the immersive pictures and buttery popcorn as it is the overall experience. Parents know too well that going out to the movies is an event — something that entertains the whole family and keeps them quiet for a few relaxing hours. There’s a reason parents don’t think twice about shelling out $70 for a night at the movies. But no matter how much a trip to the movies will refuel you, it’s probably not worth the coronavirus risk. The potential for COVID-19 transmission is high in a movie theater, and it’s difficult to reduce your risk when you’re there.

There are few hard lines when it comes to deciding which risks are okay to take during the pandemic. But once you look at how dangerous going to a movie theater is compared to other family activities, it doesn’t seem like such a good idea — especially for only two or three hours of relief. “I personally love the movies. I know there is no substitute for seeing a movie in the theater,” says Abdul El-Sayed, a public health expert and former director of Detroit’s health department. But “a movie theater is one of the last places I would take my family,” he says.

Here is the breakdown of the real risk of theaters — and how to assess when it might be safe to head back.

COVID-19 Risk In Movie Theaters

Movie theaters are a “witch’s brew for COVID-19 transmission,” El-Sayed says. “In my estimate, it’s slightly more risky than eating in a restaurant indoors. And I advise everybody I know not to eat indoors at a restaurant.”

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a trip to the movies to be a “higher risk” activity, right up there with going to bars and airports. If you go to the movies, the CDC recommends staying home as much as possible for 14 days and avoiding people at high risk of complications from COVID-19. All that for a two-and-a-half-hour movie.

Despite the CDC’s warning, many movie theaters are trying to claim that they’re safe. More than 385 companies have signed on to the Cinema Safe plan to reduce coronavirus risk. But their safety practices, while better than nothing, aren’t good enough. At some point, there’s not much theaters can do. Here’s why:

1. Poor ventilation

There aren’t any windows in movie theaters, obviously. Besides the occasional potty break, the door hardly ever opens. Some theaters, such as AMC, have invested in air filtration tech, but it’s not a requirement for reopening. Instead, air conditioners could recirculate the coronavirus. Proper ventilation reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission by getting respiratory droplets containing the coronavirus out of the air faster. And that’s not happening in a stagnant, windowless room.

2. It’s indoors

When you’re indoors, you’re sharing more air with the other people in the room. That means you’re more likely to breathe in respiratory droplets that could contain the coronavirus. Outside, fresh air is constantly blowing around, dispersing droplets and fanning them away from you.

3. Movies are long

Whether you love it or hate it, movies are long these days. You’ll be stuck in the theater for at least two hours (Risking it all for Tenet? That runs a whopping two and a half hours.) The longer you’re in one space with the same people, the more likely you are to get COVID-19 if another movie-goer is contagious.

4. Popcorn and soda

The Cinema Safe agreement outlaws eating concessions in the lobby. But chowing down in the theater is fair game. Unless they have zippable masks with holes for snacking, people are going to take off their face coverings to eat movie snacks. And unless they’re eating a bucket of popcorn all at once, they may not put their mask back on during the film.

5. It’s dark and quiet

Theaters are black and silent, which means you can’t see if the other patrons are wearing masks, and movie staff aren’t able to enforce the rules.

What Are Movie Theaters Doing to Reduce Risk?

The Cinema Safe guidelines recommend that theaters:

  • Reduce capacity
  • Require masks except for when eating concessions in the theater
  • Improve ventilation and air filtration when possible
  • Require employees to wash their hands frequently
  • Make hand sanitizer readily available
  • Enforce social distancing
  • Clean auditoriums between movie screenings
  • Minimize in-person and cash transactions
  • Train employees on signs and symptoms of COVID-19

Some medical experts think that as long as theaters are following these guidelines, going to them isn’t risky. “Nothing is 100 percent safe,” Robert Lahita, a rheumatologist at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told Vulture. “But I would say you’re 95 percent safe if you go to the movies [with all of the stated measures in place].” After all, people generally are silent in theaters and face in the same direction towards the screen, which reduces risk of transmission.

El-Sayed, who has more experience with public health and epidemiology, disagrees. If you watch a time-lapse of patrons sitting through a movie, there’s much more movement than you would expect, he says. And though people don’t talk often while a movie is rolling, the film may make them laugh or cry, which spews respiratory droplets. This is especially an issue if the person isn’t wearing a mask.

Still Want to Take the Family to the Movies?

Going to the movies is a lot of risk for little reward. Besides, the risks we take over the next few months are going to help determine whether cases go up or down, which will influence whether kids can go to school in person.

But if you’re going to go to the movies anyway, do it as safely as you can. Wear a mask at all times and skip the concessions. Sit as far away from others as possible. When you arrive, wipe down your seat with alcohol wipes. COVID-19 transmission from surfaces isn’t common, but it’s all about dosage. If someone with COVID-19 was sneezing all over a seat during the screening before yours, you’re going to want to wipe it down, especially because they were sitting there for hours.

Consider alternatives to going to a movie theater. “I’m a parent. And I know how hard it is to constantly be thinking about how do you keep your kids involved, engaged, and entertained,” El-Sayed says. “And I know that it’s going to be even harder as the weather turns.” But a home movie night can be just as fun as one in the theaters. And if you want a more memorable experience, drive-in theaters are much safer and much better for your own nostalgia.