For months, movie theaters across the country have been closed as part of the ongoing effort to save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19. In response, studios have opted to delay their big releases or pivot to a VOD rollout instead. But Russell Crowe won’t be held back by some coronavirus. He has a new action film coming out on Friday, and “I’m not fucking with you. It’s going to be in cinemas,” the Academy Award winner says to the camera in the latest ad for the movie, which will be opening in 44 states.
Crowe couldn’t hold it against us if we thought he was joking, since the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise rapidly across the country. “I don’t think you know what a bad day really is… but you’re gonna learn,” reads a tweet from Crowe promoting the film—though that could also serve as a really callous warning about reopening movie theaters too soon. And did we mention what this apparently-can-only-be-seen-in-a-theater cinematic masterpiece is called? Unhinged.
Are we overreacting? Is it actually safe to go to a movie theater in the middle of a pandemic? “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,” says Dr. Anne W. Rimoin, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center For Global And Immigrant Health at the University Of California, Los Angeles. Her sentiments are echoed by Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: “It’s just about the last thing I’d do right now,” says the physician and epidemiologist, who is also a former city city health commissioner and host of the podcast America Dissected.
So, with Unhinged hitting theaters this week—and New Mutants and Dev Patel’s The Personal History Of David Copperfield slated for next week, The A.V. Club asked Dr. Rimoin and Dr. El-Sayed to explain why movie theaters are particularly risky places to spend time in right now, what signs we should look for to indicate when it may be safe to go back to a theater, and what alternatives are ideal if we’re insistent on watching a movie in a group setting.
The A.V. Club: What’s so dangerous about a movie theater compared to other locations that are open already?
Dr. Anne W. Rimoin: I mean, the thing people need to realize is that there really is no zero-risk scenario during this COVID pandemic. We’re advising people to not interact with others beyond their immediate family or home bubble unless absolutely necessary, to limit gatherings of more than 10 people in any given space, and to avoid indoor areas. And you should definitely not be in an indoor area where you’d be taking your mask off, not even for eating. Movie theaters have all of that.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I’m a huge fan of movies. I really enjoy them. They’re a great way to have some fun and escape from the world—which we need, especially right now. But going to see a movie in an indoor movie theater, it’s just about the last thing I would do right now. From what we understand, the virus is transmitted through through aerosolized droplets that come out of our mouths, oftentimes when we talk or when we laugh or when we sing. 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.
AWR: 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. Right now you want to be thinking about “time, space, people, place”: You want to think the about the amount of time you’re spending, how socially distant you can be, who you will be around, and what the ventilation is like. And it’s not just one of those boxes you should check; you need to be checking all of them.
AVC: So if we have a loved one who won’t listen and insists on going to a movie theater, what should we tell them to make sure they are mitigating the risks as much as possible?
AWR: 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. 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. So if you’re in room with however many people for a few hours, and you don’t know their risk statuses, you’re totally subject to the risk of everybody else around you.
AE-S: 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.
AVC: We hear we don’t need to wipe down our mail or groceries, so why would they need to wipe down the theater?
AE-S: When you think about people shopping, most of the time they’re not picking up or touching a lot of things that they don’t end up putting in their cart and taking with them. Whereas, in a movie theater, somebody was literally sitting in that seat for multiple hours just before you got it. The probability of the virus being transmitted is really a function of how much virus is left on a particular surface, so that’s why I think wiping down a theater is important. That being said, that method of transmission is so much less likely than the aerosolized spread in the air. And, unfortunately, there’s very little you can do about that, which is why I think it’s ill-advised to go to movie theaters at all right now.
AVC: As things progress, what indicators should we be looking for to tell us it might be okay to go to a theater?
AWR: When it would be safe would be when we have community transmission under control here, so that is not widespread and we’re only dealing with very small clusters. When there’s adequate testing and tracing and you only have these little brush fires, not a huge flash fire like we currently have. I just don’t think that we are anywhere near that level, and I don’t foresee us being there any time in the near future.
AE-S: You know, we’re having a debate in our country right now about opening up schools. That’s an activity that is mission-critical to society—kids being able to be educated and freeing up their parents to work, even if that means simply working from home—and we’re still asking whether or not it’s worth the risk. We certainly should be doing that safely before we’re doing anything for leisure.
AVC: So, no going to the movies.
AWR: What I do think is really innovative and exciting is drive-in theaters are springing up all over the place, and outdoor screenings are happening.
AE-S: 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. And, of course, you never know how your course is going to turn out. I’ve talked to too many young, healthy people who’ve had terrible courses. Unfortunately, a lot of people in my life have passed away who otherwise you would have expected would’ve had a mild course. No one can know what’s going to happen to themselves or a loved one, so it’s just better not to take the risk.