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Since reopening at the end of 2020, movie theaters have been trying to keep patrons safe from COVID-19 by disinfecting after every screening. They bought up misters and foggers, along with untold volumes of cleaning chemicals, and carefully wiped down any surfaces where virus particles might collect.
But this aspect of theater hygiene has turned out to be little more than — well — hygiene theater. Experts have been saying since last year that the risk of surface transmission was tiny, and in April the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pegged the risk at just 1 in 10,000.
As a result, the National Association of Theatre Owners has quietly backed off its mandate to disinfect between each screen. In an update to its “CinemaSafe” guidelines last week, the trade organization advised that disinfecting should occur “consistent with existing CDC, state or local guidelines.” Those guidelines, as of early April, say it’s generally fine to just clean — not disinfect — once a day.
So far, though, a lot of theaters are sticking to their old habits.
“We’re still spraying between shows,” said Jeff Logan, president and CEO of Logan Luxury Theaters Corp., based in South Dakota. “We’ve got to maintain public confidence.”
Theaters have been allowed to open at reduced capacity across the country, and some states — including South Dakota — have no capacity restrictions at all. Even so, box office revenue remains a fraction of pre-pandemic levels.
No COVID-19 transmissions have ever been tied to a movie theater, but people are still wary. So spraying disinfectant — even if it doesn’t do much — is still worth the cost for many.
“We’re continuing until we get a little more clear consensus out there,” said Joe Paletta, president of Spotlight Theatres in Georgia. “We’ll look at our markets and see what the customer feels comfortable with.”
Landmark Theatres also told Variety that it is not changing its cleaning regimen either.
The revised NATO guidelines leave in place all of the other restrictions, including a mask mandate and physical distancing. Patrick Corcoran, NATO’s spokesman, said the relaxed rule on disinfecting came only after the CDC loosened its own guidelines, and was approved by the trade group’s medical consultants.
B&B Theatres, based in Kansas City, said it will adopt the new guidelines.
“We are leaning heavily into the science informing the CinemaSafe updates and CDC guidance and continue to operate in full compliance,” said Paul Farnsworth, a spokesman for the chain. “We will not be developing or implementing additional measures outside of that counsel.”
Disinfecting after each screening carries a cost, and it also takes up a fair amount of time. Theaters have had to pad out their schedules to allow enough time for crews to spray down all the seats and armrests between each show.
That scheduling issue could become a problem over the summer. Theaters have traditionally tried to pack in as many screenings as possible of the major blockbusters. If they stop disinfecting between shows, it will be easier to make that work.
But right now, the far greater problem is convincing patrons that it’s OK to come back at all.
“We’re just going to make darn sure everyone feels safe,” Logan said.