Movie theaters might seem like a Covid-19 breeding ground: audiences crammed into confined spaces, climbing over each other to get to their seats, unwashed hands probing self-service food stations. But the spread of coronavirus in Japan suggests theaters may not be especially susceptible to outbreaks—provided the right guidelines are in place.
Hitoshi Oshitani, a virologist at Tohoku University, told Science that most clusters started in “gyms, pubs, live music venues, karaoke rooms, and similar establishments where people gather, eat and drink, chat, sing, and work out or dance, rubbing shoulders for relatively extended periods of time.” Meanwhile, Japan did not trace any of its clusters to commuter trains—even though they’re typically congested—because commuters wear masks and don’t talk face-to-face. (Oshitani did not address movie theaters directly.)
There’s little evidence establishing movie theaters as a source of outbreaks, even before social distancing practices were widely implemented. While that doesn’t mean they carry no risk, public health experts say the likelihood of contracting the virus while moviegoing is probably lower than that of many other indoor activities.
“In a setting where we’re not talking, we’re just passively breathing and wearing masks, it might be a safer bet than a noisy, crowded bar,” Jade Flinn, a faculty member at Johns Hopkins Medicine who trains nurses at its biocontainment unit, told Quartz. “At movie theaters, if you’re not eating popcorn, you’re just sitting there with your mask on.”
Flinn added that because theatergoers all face the same direction, that, too, reduces the chances of person-to-person transmission, as long as they’re still social distancing.
Japan’s biggest theater chain, Toho Cinemas, began reopening some of its theaters this month, with several safety measures in place, including using plastic screens to keep staff and patrons apart and spacing out seating, Variety reported. That could serve as a model for the rest of the world’s movie theaters to start gradually opening their doors again.
Several US states already have plans to reopen theaters in June and July (pdf)—many of them with the same measures as Japan. Some, like South Carolina and Iowa, will limit ticket sales to 50% of capacity. Mark Zoradi, CEO of the American theater chain Cinemark, told CNBC that the company can still remain profitable even with attendance well below 30% of capacity. Flinn said that one of the things she’d need to see to feel comfortable going to the movies again was a limited capacity, coupled with parties socially distanced from each other inside the theater.
States will put caps on party sizes, stagger showtimes to allow for more time to thoroughly clean theaters in between screenings, remove self-service concessions areas, and encourage contactless payments. Some could do away with in-person ticket purchasing and require customers buy tickets online ahead of time.
Theater chains will have their own additional precautions: B&B Theatres, which operates 400 screens in the US, will ensure audiences are seated in a staggered, “checkerboard” formation—no party will be permitted to sit directly in front of, behind, or next to another. Flinn said some theaters will have to test their ventilation systems and log airflow paths, in order to strategically position attendees so they’re safer from droplets landing on them.
The demand to reopen appears to be there as well. A survey by American digital ticketing platform Atom Tickets found that 77% of respondents are ready to return to theaters once they reopen. A similar survey by analytics company EDO found that 75% of moviegoers are likely to return to theaters as long as certain safety measures are put in place.
But even if theaters can safely reopen, they might not have any movies to show. The majority of Hollywood films originally scheduled to come out this summer have since been postponed until the fall or 2021 (some scrapped their theatrical releases altogether and came out online instead). And until there’s a vaccine, Flinn added, don’t expect to see the packed crowds you may be used to seeing.
The biggest holdout thus far is Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster thriller Tenet, which still technically has a theatrical release date of July 17. Nolan, a diehard proponent of the theatrical experience, no doubt wants his film released in theaters if at all possible. So far, Warner Bros. has stayed mum on its plans for the film. A recent trailer for Tenet told audiences the film is “coming to theaters,” but did not include the July 17 date: