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Dr. Robert Lahita attempts to answer all of our questions about cinema’s grand reopening this summer.
Photo: Alain Benainous/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

This piece has been updated with new information concerning nationwide plans to reopen movie theaters this summer.

The last time I spoke to Dr. Robert Lahita about going to the movies in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, going to the movies was still an option. When we talked on Thursday, March 12, he advised a “wait and see” approach: “I think people should wait and give it a two-week period — maybe until April 1 — to regroup, because we don’t know how long this thing’s going to last. We really don’t.”

We all know how that two-week cautionary period ended; by the following Monday, most of the movie theaters in the country were closed, and they have remained closed since. “I was absolutely shocked,” Lahita confesses, “because I had no idea that we were going to be in such a conundrum. I really thought that this was going to be something like the flu where, yeah, you’d better be careful. But not a Chernobyl.”

But Lahita, chairman of medicine at St. Joseph’s Health in New Jersey, professor of medicine at New York Medical College, and adjunct professor of medicine at Rutgers, was right about the rest of it. We don’t know how long this thing is going to last. Alas, theater owners and film distributors are getting antsy, so as states are beginning to reopen (even as infection numbers continue to rise in certain regions), some of their theaters are reopening as well. The theatrical chains and movie studios are exploring their options this summer, with Disney and Warner Bros. setting late-July opening dates for Mulan and Tenet, respectively, and companies like AMC and Regal banking on those high-profile releases pulling audiences back in — albeit at limited capacity and with hefty safety measures in place.

So I put in another call to Lahita, to update his advice for safe pandemic moviegoing now that we know more about how and when COVID-19 spreads.

“We’ve seen 30,000 new cases popping up in the southern states and the Sunbelt,” Lahita begins. “It seemed there was a flattened curve, and then all of a sudden, we’re going up again. So these guys are going to open theaters when we have an increase of infections?”

Concern over rising infection rates aside for a moment, Lahita believes basic safety measures — including socially distanced reserved seating, frequent cleaning of screening rooms, and temperature checks at the Cineplex door — will go a long way for those attempting a return to the theater. “There’s always an inherent risk, but I was actually surprised at how thorough some of the planning is,” Lahita adds of the broad strategies he’s seen.

The chains’ initial reluctance to require face masks on all guests, however, has Lahita concerned. “You’d have to be nuts” not to wear a mask, he says. “You’re with a group of strangers. Unless you’re sitting 20 or 30 feet from the other person, you run the risk of being infected. There’s no question about it. You know how the air is in a theater: It’s not circulated very well. If you don’t wear a mask, you take your chances.”

Thankfully, AMC and Regal reversed course, announcing that guests would be required to wear masks — though their present policy allows for masks to be removed while eating and drinking concessions. That, he says, is a problem.

“That’s comparable to [eating from] a buffet in a restaurant,” Lahita says. “There’s an interchange of money, you put your hands on the counter, you wait to get the popcorn and the soda and all that.” Though some theaters will use contactless methods for concession transactions, there is still the issue of masks — and the need to take them off to consume food and drink: “There’s no way to eat or drink safely wearing a mask.”

“I think it’s extraordinarily dangerous,” Lahita says. “I understand that everybody wants to be entertained and come out of their homes and all of that. But a drive-in theater would probably be a lot safer.”

As the theatrical lockdown wore on over the past several months, drive-in movie theaters have thrived, offering audiences a way to “go to the movies” while still remaining in a safe, socially distanced bubble. (Sadly, there aren’t that many left to frequent; most drive-ins were put out of business in the 1970s and 1980s by the very multiplexes that are now locked up.)

“It is perfectly safe, provided you do not leave your car,” Lahita says. “You would have to stock your car with food and drink. And you would have to leave the car to go to the bathroom, which of course exposes you to risk. In the summer you would have to leave the windows down, or keep the engine running for air conditioning. With windows down, your neighbor could infect you, although that’s unlikely.”

Theaters like AMC and Cinemark have promised copious sanitizer distribution throughout their buildings, but Lahita warns that handwashing will remain necessary. “If you touch anything in the restroom, like the handle, the toilet, the urinal, you wipe your hands down and wash your hands after going to the bathroom,” Lahita adds. “Make sure you wash them thoroughly with soap and water, and everything should be fine.”

As before, Lahita advises bringing disinfecting wipes and wiping down your immediate seating area before settling in for a film — with one update: Back in March, he noted that plastic seats were much more cleanable with wipes — and thus safer — than their cloth counterparts. “The data now shows that cloth seats and plastic seats don’t make a difference,” he explains. “In fact, I think there was some data suggesting that cloth seats were actually better than plastic and metal. The virus doesn’t live for very long on any of these fomite kind of things. You can wipe plastic down, you can’t wipe cloth down, but cloth is not likely to be as infected; neither is plastic according to the data I’ve seen. So that’s not a big concern.”

When discussing the various logistical details of a cinematic reopening, you might find yourself asking a bigger question: Are theater owners acting responsibly by reopening their doors, even at limited capacity, when infection is still a risk? Are studios acting responsibly by putting out new movies, with the hope that patrons will risk their health to see them in theaters?

“That’s a real doozy of a question,” Lahita admits, “because, you know, my criticism and concern right now is that these mass gatherings in Florida, in Arizona, New Mexico, and in California — people are gathering on beaches and things without masks and no social distancing. Is this pushing it? Well, I don’t want to see the movie industry die. But on the other hand, if I were them, I would prolong the release of new movies until, say, the fall because there could be a resurgence of this virus in September, October when the temperatures change again in the Northeast. So if everybody’s going to the movies, it could spike reinfection rates.”

But there are no easy answers, he insists. “I would say 70 percent of the people [infected with COVID-19] are non-symptomatic or if they get the disease, they’re sick, but they recover at home. There’s that small percentage that’s of great concern. We don’t know who they are and we have no way to determine who they are, so that’s the scary part. Are they at risk by going to the theater? Probably not. Are they at risk at protests? Yes. Are they at risk at the beach and the lakes without masks? Yes.”

“Nothing is 100 percent safe,” Lahita notes. “But I would say you’re 95 percent safe if you go to the movies [with all of the stated measures in place]. I don’t know about live theater, because the seating there is a little closer than in a big movie theater, and that could be a little dicey. Plus, the people onstage are screaming, yelling, singing … This may actually be the first time that orchestra seats are not a good idea.”

But if you go without a mask? “It’s like Russian roulette. You never know.”

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