Read: Hollywood is preparing to sacrifice movie theaters
“I don’t think theaters should be closed at this point,” Robert Lahita, a clinical professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and the chair of the department of medicine at St. Joseph’s Healthcare System, told me. “In fact, a month ago, I said they should have been open, especially if we’re taking kids to school and kids are before teachers in live learning. There’s no reason that theaters should be closed.”
That’s assuming proper precautions are in place: that moviegoers are wearing masks, that auditoriums are not overly full, and that ventilation systems have been improved so as to better filter out exhaled pathogens, Lahita said.
Right now, theaters are nowhere close to full, as a look at the weekend box office will reveal; and theaters have indeed ramped up their efforts to keep the surfaces you touch and the air you breathe cleaner. “What the movie theaters are doing is that they are adding a layer of prevention by increasing the air exchanges” and using stronger filters, David Goldsmith, an epidemiologist at George Washington University who has helped the major theater chains develop their pandemic safety protocols, told me. “[The filters] are very high-contact to capture both garden-variety viruses but also COVID-19, which is similar in terms of [particle size]. But what they’re doing is that they’re putting in place a better means of keeping whatever viral transmission there might be in movie-theater air. By improving the air exchanges, they are capturing more of those particles, if they are there.” In most cases, moreover, each auditorium has its own dedicated air-conditioning system—meaning that cross-theater contamination is not a concern.
In terms of viral hazards, not all activities are created equal, because not all activities are equally conducive to spreading disease-carrying droplets through the air. Houses of worship—where people congregate in close quarters with poor ventilation while singing hymns—are more likely to serve as locations for a super-spreader event than, say, playgrounds. Weddings are more dangerous than picnics. Indoor dining is probably on the dangerous end of the spectrum, but America’s patchwork contact tracing has made that more difficult to definitively prove than it should be.
Movie theaters are in a gray zone. Despite being indoors (a red flag), the sort of behavior engaged in at the movies is, relatively speaking, benign. Patrons who can and should wear a mask for the duration of their visit face the same direction and don’t chatter much. Theaters are “less risky than places like gyms, where people are breathing heavily and sweating, or bars, where people can get too close or talk loudly and expel more of the virus, even with masking requirements,” Natascha Tuznik, a UC Davis Health professor, said when California theaters were considering reopening.