Where Are All the Movie Theater COVID Cases?

Not one reported case, anywhere in the world

Where are all the movie-theater COVID-19 cases?

As soon as the pandemic was on for real in March, movie theaters closed down totally. They were, experts warned us, super-spreading locations of the highest order. And even as they’ve been reopening, the warnings remain incredibly dire. Every publication has run an essay by a critic saying they didn’t feel safe going back to the movies right now. We ran just such a piece today.

When it became clear that Warner Brothers was going to dare to open Tenet in theaters, and that other movies would also dip a toe in the COVID-infested waters, the Onion’s AV club ran an interview with an epidemiologist headlined “Please don’t go to a movie theater: ‘It’s just about the last thing I’d do right now.'” 

Well, that sounds very scary. People did it anyway. Studios have been dumping content into the theaters for a month, and some people have bought tickets. But not one reported outbreak. So the question remains:

Where are all the movie-theater COVID-19 cases?

I’ve been looking, very hard, for any reported evidence, because I don’t want even vaguely encourage people to make a deadly choice. But there hasn’t been one reported COVID-related death to movie theater attendance anywhere in the world. There hasn’t even been a reported case of COVID. Not a symptomatic case. Not an asymptomatic case. Nothing.

How can that be possible? Movie theaters aren’t open in Los Angeles or New York right now, but they are open most other places. Seventy percent of all screens in the United States are operating, not at full capacity, but available for customers. The coronavirus hasn’t gone away. So where are the cases? Not one case in six months. Nine months, really, when you consider that the plague started in China in December. Again, how can that be possible?

Bad reporting?

It could be that there have been cases of movie-related COVID-19 infection, but we just don’t know about them. People could easily have caught coronavirus in theaters in New York or Italy in February, or Wuhan in December, or Los Angeles on March 1, but we weren’t tracking COVID-19 just yet. So there’s that, but you can’t really count that era. As late as March 2, the Mayor of New York was recommending that his citizens to go to the movies.

By the time theaters started reopening in May, we’d gotten a little better at tracing viral spread. I went to the movies in Kyle, Texas, on May 4. The theater down the street from me opened for business a few days later. Since then, the United States has had millions of Coronavirus cases. Not a single one has been traced to a movie theater.

Well, you say, maybe they missed a case. After all, no one is required to tell doctors “I went to the movies last week.” That’s very true. But someone would have fessed up, at some point. I doubt that the media or the medical establishment would have kept that information from us. Stories pop up all the time of restaurants or groceries having to close for a deep clean after a staff member tests positive. Do you remember the story about the church group that died because they were singing? Or the stories about outbreaks at weddings and family parties? One guy died of COVID-19 after the Sturgis motorcycle rally and it was front-page news in the New York Times. These aren’t exactly state secrets. If there had been significant traceable movie-theater outbreaks, we would know.

The wide world of moviegoing

But that’s just the United States, right?  Other countries in the world have handled the virus better. Well, Asian countries that live and die by contact tracing have not reported a single outbreak related to moviegoing. Theaters are currently open in Taiwan, Singapore, mainland China, Vietnam, South Korea, and elsewhere. No cases reported, anywhere.

A friend of mine said, “right, because everyone is monitoring the viral loads of people at the 6:30 showing of Unhinged in Bratislava.” They’re not, but we certainly stand on guard. If anything virally bad happens anywhere in the world as a result of innocent consensual leisure activity, we know. It was a big story in the U.S. when a South Korean megachurch defied the laws of nature, and when a Seoul nightclub outbreak “showed the perils of reopening” .

The same goes for movie theaters in Europe, which doesn’t have the virus under as tight control as Asia. Theaters are open in Italy and in Amsterdam. They are open in France and the U.K. In Sweden, they never closed. In Barcelona, they opened for a bit, and then re-closed. Meanwhile, the King and Queen of Spain went to a movie in Madrid to show support for the much-maligned industry. Despite the fact that most film festivals worldwide have gone virtual out of fear of viral spread, the BCN festival in Catalonia happened in late July. More than 8000 people went to those movies, with zero COVID deaths–and zero cases–reported.

Small crowds

You could explain away this COVID-related movie theater miracle by the fact that fewer people are going to the movies right now. That’s certainly true. But, again, 8000-plus people went to a festival in Catalonia, and survived. There have been no reported COVID-19 cases related to the “masked and distanced” Venice Film Festival.

What about non-festival-going audiences? The entertainment press has made much ado about the disastrous opening of Tenet, a bad movie that got more hype for daring to debut in theaters than about the film itself. Tenet, as of this writing, has made about 30 million dollars. That’s not good for a blockbuster, but it’s still a significant amount of money. So let’s assume an average of $10 a ticket, which may actually be a little high, because the most expensive cities aren’t allowing moviegoing right now. But it’s a nice round number. That means that approximately three million Americans have seen Tenet in a theater, and there has not been a single COVID-19 case traceable back to those three million individual decisions.


Drive-in theaters are quite the trend right now. So not every one of those three-million tickets were in traditional theaters, but even if half of the tickets sold were for drive-ins–which they weren’t–that’s still more than a million American people who have seen Tenet in a movie theater in the last two weeks. I suppose a perilous outbreak could be coming, but if it does, we’d have to start seeing those stories soon. Again, not a single case reported.

And that’s just in the United States. Tenet has made more than $200 million worldwide. Tens of millions of people have seen that dumb movie in the theaters. Not one of them, as far as we know, has contracted Coronavirus. Just like theme parks, but unlike casinos, movie theaters have somehow managed to avoid the worst, or anything at all.

Robots and fog sprays

Maybe movie theaters aren’t as deadly as advertised. Or maybe the nature of movie-going has changed for the better. Popcorn-dispensing robots are now staffing movie theaters in South Korea. This entertaining report from the Guardian, published six weeks ago, describes a global cinema-going experience of small crowds, staggered seating, deep cleaning, mask wearing, and general isolation and privacy that would have been unthinkable a year ago. For the time being, at least, everything that was once unpleasant about going to the movies has vanished.

Or maybe we’ve just gotten lucky. But I don’t think so. I think we’re gonna make it! As an epidemiologist told Vulture last month, “Unless you’re being coughed or sneezed on by the person behind you, or the children next to you, I don’t see any major risk.”

Meanwhile, cinema-mad India is currently experiencing the world’s most severe COVID outbreak, with case counts nearing 100,000 per day, but you can’t blame that on people going to the movies.

All movie theaters in India are currently closed, and have been since March.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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