Is It Safe To Go To The Movies Yet?

Know the risks versus rewards.

An empty movie theater. Movie theaters are opening back up, but you might be wondering if it's safe ...
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It's been nearly six months since you could go out for a proper movie date, but films might once again be coming soon to a silver screen near you. CNBC reports that AMC, Regal, and other major national movie theater chains have begun re-opening as of late August. Though you can still catch premieres like live-action Mulan while streaming at home, you might be wondering if it's safe to go to the movie theater.

Is It Safe To Go To A Movie Theater?

In order to understand whether or not movie theaters are safe, you need to understand how COVID-19 spreads. "Movie theaters are enclosed environments where individuals are sitting for extended periods of time," says Dr. Sanjeev Jain, M.D., a doctor double-board certified in immunology and internal medicine. That's precisely the kind of environment you probably want to avoid during COVID, as good ventilation — think being outside, or at least having windows open — is an important part of lowering the risk of the virus spreading. However, if all your fellow patrons are wearing masks from commercials to end credits, viral particles might not spread within the theater itself; The Atlantic reports that wearing your mask and not talking can lower transmission rates by a factor of 50 as compared to talking very loudly (which hopefully, you're not doing in a theater anyway). "In the grand scheme of things, going to movie theaters is less risky than going to the gym or a bar, and has a similar risk to taking a two-hour airplane flight," Dr. Jain says.

What To Know Before Going To The Movies

"Going to movie theaters during COVID-19 pandemic certainly carries risk of transmission, but individuals need to make choices based on their individual circumstances and their risk tolerance," Dr. Jain says. The theater might be safer than your local gym, he explains, but that's not all there is to it. "One also needs to consider whether one is in contact with elderly relatives or individuals with other medical conditions, who have a much higher risk of complications from COVID-19." Even if your loved ones and coworkers stay home from the movies, there's a chance you could go and bring the virus back to your quarantine pod. Dr. Jain advises remaining extremely aware of the risk factors of people you live with or tend to be in contact with.

"The risk does vary greatly between region to region and the specific community," he adds. "Individuals need to know how prevalent the virus is in their specific community to better assess their risk." Check to see if your local COVID-19 stats are rising, staying steady, falling, or close to containment — the closer your county or state is to containment, the less risky an outing will be.

The other question is if your state regulations even allow movie theaters to open. According to CNN, about 1,400 theaters across the country were reopening as of late August, with chains like AMC pledging only to open after meeting guidelines set by state and local officials, requiring masks, and sanitizing theaters between screenings. Dr. Jain also says that it's best to find out what precautions your movie theater is taking — think temperature checks, limiting seat availability, and upgrading ventilation systems — before you grab your tickets and popcorn.

What Safety Precautions Should I Take At The Movies?

"Keeping a distance of six feet and wearing a mask are clearly beneficial, and are likely to reduce the risk of transmission by over 80%," Dr. Jain tells Bustle. But even if seats are spaced out, it's important to consider one of the hallmarks of American movie theaters — popcorn and soda. Dr. Jain says that the risk of transmission "increases dramatically" when people are taking off their masks to eat and drink in an enclosed space. Even if you order ahead to pick up your nachos and massive soda without customer service contact, remember that you've got to take your mask off to enjoy them — thereby potentially spreading viral particles you're carrying. And that might not be worth the rush to get back to the big screen.

At the end of the day, taking a two-hour airplane flight is probably more essential that going to the movies. Catching a new release, then, might not be high on your priority list for some time. "Reduction of risk down to zero is not practical or necessary, but life is unlikely to go back to pre-COVID state until after a safe and effective vaccine is widely administered," he says. "The most optimistic estimates for the majority of the population to be vaccinated is summer of 2021." In the meantime, he explains, you'll need to assess how safe a movie theater might be based on your own situation.


Dr. Sanjeev Jain, M.D., doctor double-board certified in immunology and internal medicine, Columbia Asthma and Allergy Clinic