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On reopening cinemas

/ 04:03 AM February 22, 2021

I want to be back in cinemas as much as the next person, but the prospect is admittedly frightening, and I am conscious that it is a “nonessential” activity adequately replaced by streaming services. Even as Metro Manila continues to be the epicenter of the epidemic in the Philippines, we see evidence everywhere of the extent to which people have already resumed leisure activities outside their homes. On rare trips to mall supermarkets, I see full aisles; I see patrons scattered in food courts and restaurants with the barest minimum of social distancing, people wandering with masks askew and face shields worn like decorative visors. There is a never-ending calculus of risk versus reward when deciding whether to venture outside, and much of it depends on how much we trust our fellow Filipinos to observe distancing, to wear their masks properly, and to stay home when symptomatic or with recent COVID-19 exposure. This does not fill me, a cautious would-be moviegoer, with much confidence.

As the debate about reopening cinemas continues, the scientific mind is interested in data. The stumbling block is how little data there really is on COVID-19 transmission in theaters. The best data, perhaps, come from South Korea, which has an intensive contact-tracing system and which was one of the few countries that did not close down their cinemas with the rest of the world. Of more than 30 million cinema visits in February-September 2020, there were 49 visits by persons who would eventually test positive for the coronavirus. There is no record that transmissions occurred from these persons to other visitors. Smaller reports also exist from other countries, like Germany, about cinemagoers who later tested positive for COVID-19 but who, after contact tracing, did not appear to infect other patrons sitting nearby.

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Other experts have chimed in on the debate. For one thing, it is suggested that the large capacity of cinemas, coupled with how patrons are normally silent and do not speak during films, make the cinema a less dangerous venue for aerosol transmission versus gyms and restaurants, which have been allowed to reopen, and where people often talk a lot and take off their masks to eat or exercise for long periods.

All of this is well and good. In recent talks about reopening cinemas in the Philippines, the need to adhere to strict health protocols has been rightly emphasized, including strict mask-wearing and enough empty seats and aisles between patrons. (Bathroom breaks were also discouraged, but I trust that this is a policy that will not pan out, particularly since transmission risk in short toilet visits is not particularly high. After all, cinema visits are not strictly essential, while bathroom visits are.) Some scientists also recommend avoiding speaking in cinemas, and this is a suggestion that we would do well to keep in mind.

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The fear, then, rightly arises from the knowledge that Filipinos might agree to wear masks, but might not wear them properly. It also arises from knowing that corners may be cut (as they often are) in terms of ventilation and sanitation, or that distancing might not be enforced well—we already see rules being bent quite freely now in restaurants, grocery store lines, and so on. We also may not have the same tools to reduce direct contact as, say, South Korean moviegoers, who are able to use automated ticketing and self-activated concessionaires. All of this suggests that given the proper restrictions and good compliance by audiences, cinemas may actually be a safer place than we think—but that a lack of discipline, subpar implementation, and careless mask-wearing can easily put all that at risk.

Looking into the data of transmission also reminds us of the sobering reality of where COVID-19 does get transmitted quite often—that is, in restaurants, coffee shops and the like, as indoor dining has already been extensively linked to COVID-19 transmission. Churches and other places for religious congregation have also been traced as sources of small outbreaks. While Metro Manila authorities are rightly hesitant about cinemas reopening, they should probably be paying equal attention to restrictions and compliance in restaurants and churches.

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