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 starting to open exclusively in theaters again. But as the disease spreads and recirculates in waves, chains like AMC, Regal, and Cinemark are struggling, with some theaters reopening and then shuttering again, while others close 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.
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 is slowly 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.
The status of movie theaters depends on the state where they’re located, or even the city. Safety guidelines around the country vary widely. Theaters in general are requesting patrons respect the social-distance guidelines and stay six feet apart, but whether that means keeping individuals separate, or groups, depends on the location. A spreadsheet published by the National Association of Theatre Owners continually updates the restrictions on a state-by-state basis.
Movie theater safety guidelines
While each state has a different set of guidelines to adhere to, the CEOs of four of the biggest theater chains decided to band together and instill a universal set of rules across their theaters. Known as CinemaSafe, the program now has more than 3,100 participating theaters. (The full list is available on the CinemaSafe website.) You’ll know a theater is adhering to the CinemaSafe guidelines if it displays its logo. The CinemaSafe website also includes a map detailing basic theater guidelines in each state.
The CinemaSafe guidelines — which chains like AMC, Regal, Alamo Drafthouse, and Cinemark are using — are broad, leaving room for discrepancies between state- and city-specific mandates. At the very least, a CinemaSafe theater will institute these following rules:
- All employees will be wearing masks. Patrons must wear masks — except when “noted by the CDC and herein.” Those who do not wear face coverings will be denied entry.
- Appropriate social distancing must be maintained, except for those attending together.
- Theaters will have reduced capacity (again, not specified, probably due to individual state guidelines).
- All HVAC systems will be working with increased ventilation.
- Employees will be frequently washing their hands.
- Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol will be placed in easily accessible areas.
- Auditoriums will be disinfected between movie screenings.
- All employees will undergo training to identify possible symptoms of COVID-19.
- Concessions sales will be done with minimum cash transactions. Anything communal — soda machines, condiments, etc — will be eliminated.
- Ticket sales will be available online whenever possible to reduce lines.
While masks are mandated in lobby areas of CinemaSafe theaters, it varies from chain to chain and state to state whether they will be required in actual auditoriums. Many theaters say that masks can be removed while eating and drinking concessions during the movie. Theatergoers have widely reported that theater staffers are not monitoring mask use during films.
What the CDC says about coronavirus
The Center for Disease Control 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, 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.