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What to know about movie theaters and COVID-19 in your state

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The latest guidelines and health updates as theater chains reopen for new movies

Rows of seats in a movie theater Photo illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

After the escalation of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the shutdown of businesses across America, and the delay of major tentpole releases previously scheduled throughout 2020, new movies are now opening exclusively in theaters again. But as the disease recirculates in waves, chains like AMC, Regal, and Cinemark have struggled, with some theaters reopening and then shuttering again, while others closed permanently. As COVID-19 continues to be a prevalent issue in many parts of the United States and around the world, the safety, practicality, and availability of movie theaters remains in question.

So with vaccination becoming more common, and films like Black Widow and F9 hitting theaters… is it finally safe to go?

As with everything in life during uncertain times, the answer boils down to a personal choice made by an informed decision. At Polygon, we will continue to cover weekly theatrical releases only to the extent in which our writers feel comfortable, but will not require anyone writing for us to attend a general screening at a movie theater in instances where studios were unable to provide home screening options. We encourage our readers to follow guidelines provided by the CDC, health authorities, and theaters to determine whether attendance is right for them.

Here’s what to know before deciding whether you want to see a movie in theaters.

COVID-19 news and numbers by state

Though the COVID-19 vaccine has been rolling out, outbreaks continue across the country. The Center for Disease Control keeps a daily update of reported cases across the United States, which can further be broken down by state and county. Per CDC guidelines, fully-vaccinated individuals can start resuming pre-pandemic group activities without masking or social distancing, but must also adhere to state and regional guidelines.

When it comes to theaters, the status of movie theaters depends on the state where they’re located, or even the city. Safety guidelines around the country vary widely. Some states are fully back at 100% theater capacity, while others have imposed social-distancing guidelines.

Movie theater safety guidelines

A view outside AMC Kips Bay 15 movie theater during the coronavirus pandemic on May 14, 2020 in New York City Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

While occupancy depends on the state, each individual theater chain has additional guidelines to follow. Preciously, the CEOs of the four biggest theater chains banded together to instill a universal set of rules, known as the CinemaSafe guidelines. The site previously listed all the guidelines, but now it lists each state’s different rules and individually links out to the theater chains in question, which have additional policies in place. This may include the eating and drinking guidelines and whether fully vaccinated people are required to wear masks.

What the CDC says about coronavirus

Once again, the CDC says fully vaccinated people — and reminder, that is two weeks after a second dose of Pfizer or Moderna, or two weeks after one shot of Johnson & Johnson — are able to resume most pre-pandemic activities without masking or social distancing.

If you are not fully vaccinated, or if you still want the most information to make a decision, the CDC also has a handy guide on the safest way to complete many activities, including going to the library, getting groceries, and checking the mail. There is no specific guideline for movie theaters. But in general, when it comes to group activities, the CDC asks you to consider the following risks:

  • Is COVID-19 spreading in your area?
  • Will you come into contact with a sick individual or someone without a mask, who may be an asymptomatic carrier?
  • Do you have increased risk of complications with COVID-19?
  • Are you proactively taking actions to protect yourself from the virus?
  • Are you personally exhibiting symptoms?

If you do decide to go out and are not fully vaccinated, the CDC recommends prioritizing outdoor activities over indoor ones, avoiding restroom areas, and keeping at least six feet of space between yourself and others. If you are feeling sick or showing symptoms, the CDC recommends staying at home. For those fully vaccinated, the CDC still recommends complying with local guidelines, wearing masks when traveling, and not going out if feeling unwell.