Sorry, Folks, but Moviegoing During a Pandemic Is Unsafe and Irresponsible

Sorry, Folks, but Moviegoing During a Pandemic Is Unsafe and Irresponsible June 19, 2020

Are you dying to go back to the cinema?  Are you willing to die to go back to the cinema?  Those two questions are now intertwined, after yesterday’s report in Variety that AMC Theaters, the world’s largest cinema corporation, will be reopening on July 15.

As a film critic and lifelong movie lover, I can’t wait to return to big screen viewing.  As a physician, I’m morally obligated to wait.  Let’s consider why, by looking at that Variety article in more detail.

Brent Lang, its author, is right to point out that AMC is hurting financially in a massive way.  Their choice to hoover up rivals like Carmike and Odeon put them $5 billion in the hole.  COVID-19, following fast on the heels of their cupidity, has them hovering on the edge of bankruptcy.  So I’m compelled to believe that financial desperation far outweighs community concern in deciding to reopen next month.

This suspicion is confirmed by statements from AMC CEO and President Adam Aron on face masks in the article.  To quote him at length:  “AMC will not mandate that all guests wear masks…We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy…We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary. We think that the vast majority of AMC guests will be wearing masks.”

Let’s break this down a bit at a time.  To revamp a famous line from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, viruses don’t give two sh*ts about your beliefs.  The science is conclusive that masks are essential to any strategy preventing viral spread.  We’ve seen how well “strong beliefs” have worked in the disastrous American response to this pandemic, in our Chief Executive’s stalling because he thought COVID-19 would go away “like a miracle,” or in his now-discredited touting of Chloroquine.

In claiming that the vast majority of AMC guests will be wearing masks, Aron obviously hasn’t spent much time in my home state of Tennessee.  My necessary visits to the pharmacy or grocery store show a majority of Volunteer State residents voluntarily choosing not to wear masks in their daily business.

My bet is that Aron has concession stand revenue under the magnifying glass in making this call.  Masked customers are much less likely to purchase popcorn and supersized sodas, which generate 40% of cinema profits.

Moving on, let’s look at the safety measures that AMC plans to utilize.  From the Variety article again:  “[T]he theater chain said that it is going to lean heavily on technological solutions such as deploying electrostatic sprayers, HEPA vacuums and upgraded MERV 13 ventilation filters…Other procedures being implemented include cleaning auditoriums between each showtime and allowing extra time between screenings for disinfection; blocking out every other row of seats to decrease congestion.”

True, using electrostatic sprayers and HEPA vacuums between screenings should be helpful in lessening the viral load on the floor, seats and other surfaces.  However, there’s the pesky problem that the virus can remain airborne for two hours.

And those MERV 13 ventilation filters?  They catch 90% of particles in the 3-10 micron range, dropping to 50% of particles in the 0.3-1.0 micron range.  The size of COVID-19 is 0.125 micron.  Do you see the problem there?

Blocking out every other row of seats sounds swell.  Nonetheless, that implies I could still be sharing a row with maskless strangers.

Now let’s put AMC’s decision in the bigger context of the current state of our pandemic.  Ten states have just seen their highest weeklong average of new daily cases since COVID arrived on our shores.  Worldwide, we’re seeing clusters of cases – at times 100 or more – ensue from funerals, parties, nightclub visits, and trips to the beach.

Earlier this month, The New York Times published an enlightening survey of 511 epidemiologists.  84% said they were waiting three months or more before eating at a dine-in restaurant.  64% anticipated holding off for at least a year before going to sporting events, concerts, or plays.

These scientists weren’t specifically asked about cinema-going, but I don’t think it’s a leap to presume they’d say it’s too soon to patronize AMC.  As such, I’m obeying my scientific self rather than my cinephilic self and postponing any trips to the movies for the foreseeable future.

As a consequence of this choice, until the science tells me it’s safe to return to theaters, you won’t see reviews for movies here until they’re available on streaming services.  Does it bum me out that I’ll have to wait longer to see Tenet, and that my website traffic might take a hit?  Absolutely.  But knowing that film reviews are free movie publicity, I ethically cannot contribute to AMC’s, Christopher Nolan’s, and Warner Brothers’ revenue streams.  Even in a small way, I won’t be complicit in their decisions to place profit over public safety.


(Photo by yours truly, taken this morning outside my local AMC theater.)

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