Movie theaters in Philadelphia and New Jersey are opening back up, which means we’re allowed to go back to something that was popular in the before times: a night at the movies.
Indoor movie theaters in Philadelphia are allowed to reopen on Sept. 8, as city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley announced last month. And New Jersey movie theaters can reopen on Friday, Sept. 4, as Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday.
(Movie theaters in the Philadelphia suburbs have been open since late June, when Southeastern Pennsylvania moved into the green phase.)
But just because movie theaters are allowed to reopen, does that mean it’s safe to go?
Here is a breakdown of the rules theaters must follow, what epidemiologists think, and how you can keep yourself a little safer if you decide to go:
What do movie theaters have to do?
First, theaters have to limit their capacity.
In Philadelphia, theaters can only have 25 people in a single screening room, and they cannot exceed 50% of their total occupancy, according to reopening guidance from the city.
Movie theaters in New Jersey are limited to 25% capacity or 150 people per showing, whichever is smaller.
Social distancing is required. In Philadelphia, that means staying six feet apart while buying tickets, and rows and seats will be blocked off to keep six feet between people other than family groups. New Jersey allows groups that buy tickets together to sit together, though they must be six feet apart from others.
You should also expect increased cleaning. That means hand-washing or sanitizing stations throughout the building, and frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces like railings and armrests.
Theaters are also supposed to increase ventilation by opening windows or doors on opposite sides of the building, though how much a difference that may make in an enclosed theater isn’t clear.
Some movie theater chains — like AMC and Landmark Theatres — have also signed onto a voluntary program called CinemaSafe, developed by the National Association of Theater Owners. The program calls for additional precautions for hand hygiene, PPE, increased HVAC ventilation, and disinfection.
Do I have to wear a mask in a movie theater?
Yes. City guidelines require all staff and visitors wear masks while on site, while New Jersey requires masks to be worn unless attendees are “removing them to eat or drink concessions,” according to a release from the state. So in N.J. theaters, people may take off their masks while they eat.
In Philly, you are required to wear a mask the entire time you are in the theater. Philadelphia theaters cannot serve food or drink.
So, should I go to a movie right now?
It depends. Ultimately, says Seth Welles, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health, choosing to go to a movie theater is an individual choice.
“It’s really up to the individual as to how much risk they’re willing to take,” Welles says. “How do you reduce risk, and is it enough to you? If you leave the movie theater and live in terror for five days after, is it worth it? I don’t think so.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, being in a movie theater is considered a higher-risk activity. This, Welles says, is because it’s a “congregate activity” that involves being around crowds in an enclosed space. That could pose a risk of transmission from aerosols — especially if people take their masks off after the lights go down — as aerosols can stay in the air for a long time, and “move well beyond the six to eight feet around you,” he adds.
“You hope they are bringing in fresh air, and have good ventilation and air exchange,” Welles says. “Transmission occurs because of a certain critical number of particles. If you can reduce the number of particles, you can reduce the probability that you’ll get infected.”
Safety really depends on the individual movie theater, says Henry F. Raymond, epidemiologist and associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health. It comes down to a variety of factors, he says, such as capacity limits, a high-functioning HVAC system, and enforcement of social distancing and mask use. If done right, he says, going to a movie could “be done relatively safely.”
However, it’s worth mentioning that neither epidemiologist said they would be going to a movie theater right now.
How can I lower my risk?
If you decide to go, there are some ways to lower your risk of getting or spreading COVID-19.
Raymond recommends calling your theater and asking about their coronavirus precautions. Welles suggests scoping out the theater and crowd before going in to make sure both moviegoers and employees are following mask and social distancing rules.
And, if you decide you aren’t comfortable, and don’t feel safe, leave.
You could also go to a weekday matinee, which is generally less busy, Raymond says.
And, of course, practice social distancing and wear your mask, or supplement it with a face shield, as Welles recommends.
“That may be hard in a theater, it may not be as pleasurable,” Welles says. “But if you don’t mind a face shield, wear one, and don’t care about what other people think.”
As an extra precaution, you could also bring sanitizing wipes with you to wipe down your seat before the show begins, though, as Welles notes, there is little evidence that the coronavirus can be picked up from surfaces.
“You have to be almost aggressively mindful about this stuff,” Welles says. “Remember: masks and gloves, they reduce risk, but they don’t totally eliminate risk. There is still some risk; you have to ask yourself whether you are willing to do it or not.”
Are there safer options?
In a word, yes. Staying at home and streaming a new release is, obviously, a “totally safe alternative” to going out to a theater, Welles says.
“What’s nice is you can comment and talk to everyone in your house and not bother other people,” Welles says. “It’s not quite as communal of an activity, which is attractive to people, but this is a time where we have to put off doing these things so we can reduce the amount of transmission and defuse this pandemic.”
Or, you could even set up your own backyard movie night with relative ease, provided you have the space.
However, in the end, going out to the movies right now is a personal choice, and every person’s situation is slightly different.
“People have to take their own risk into account while bearing in mind the potential effects on other people,” Raymond says. “Is it worth the risk to my friends and family when I can watch Mulan on Disney+? I get that it is a different experience in the theater. And we all need a break.”