'It's too soon to go to a movie theater,' infectious disease experts say

Key Points
  • Major movie theater chains are looking to reopen in July.
  • Infectious disease experts think it's too soon for consumers to return to movie theaters.
  • Epidemiologists worry that lax mask policies and air-conditioning could lead to to increased transmission of the coronavirus.
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Movie theater owners may be eager to reopen their screens to the public, but health experts aren't convinced that it's time to head back to cinemas.

Coronavirus cases in the U.S. have not slowed. In fact, the country reported more new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday than any single day before. Nearly half of these new cases are coming from Florida, Texas and California, where outbreaks appear to be expanding. 

"What we are seeing now is that wave one is still going on," said Dr. Ravina Kullar, a Los Angeles-based infectious disease specialist, epidemiologist and spokeswoman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "There has not been a decline or a plateau and that is a concern. I don't see any change in a positive direction."

While movie theaters have established guidelines for social distancing and increased sanitation, only some locations are requiring patrons wear masks. Infectious disease specialists who spoke to CNBC underscored the importance of wearing face coverings as a preventative measure against the spread of coronavirus, especially in enclosed, air-conditioned locations.

The majority of theaters are looking to reopen in mid-July. But even studios seem to be sensing that theaters may not be ready for large crowds. Warner Bros. "Tenet," which was supposed to be released on July 17 was pushed to July 31 amid concerns that theaters may not be ready to reopen in time. There have also been rumors that Disney's "Mulan" could be displaced from its July 24 release date.

"I would honestly say I'm not comfortable going to the movies right now," Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an Atlanta-based infectious diseases specialist said. "I want to see the numbers come down, want to see the cases go down. Right now, the only place I am comfortable going to the movies is my living room."

Both Kullar and Del Rio voiced concerns about the accountability of other customers at the cinema. For the most part, the other patrons in the theater will be strangers and there's no way to determine if they have been judicious about safety measures or if they have disregarded them. There's also no way that theaters can enforce the use of masks when the lights go down and the movie begins. 

"Not wearing a mask is like Russian roulette," Kullar said.

Then there is the air-conditioning. In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a research letter linking the spread of coronavirus to air conditioners.

The primary way that coronavirus is transmitted is through close contact from person to person and the exchange of infected droplets. The forced air could increase the risk for transmission.

While some production studios have introduced new air filtration systems in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease, no major movie theater has announced plans to invest in this technology. 

"Right now it's too soon to go to a movie theater," Kullar said, noting that drive-in theaters are a much safer option for consumers. 

Del Rio, too, recommended that consumers avoid closed spaces and large crowds.

"In the middle of a pandemic there are certain things you have to do and things you don't have to do," Del Rio said. "At a certain point you have to say 'doing this is too much of a risk.'"

AMC reverses course, now requires guests to wear masks
AMC reverses course, now requires guests to wear masks