How To Go to a Movie Theater Again, According to a Doctor

Photos: Shutterstock; Design: Marissa Dickson/Thrillist

After a year and change of regular movie marathons (read: every other night), you might be feeling ready to see a flick on the silver screen. Now that some 60% of the adult population in the US is fully vaccinated, many of us are again considering experiencing the rush of the lights dimming, the surround sound blaring, and actors, superheroes, and maybe even the occasional cartoon character gracing a jumbo screen in front of us. But you may be wondering just what you should expect if you decide to return to the movies.

Fear not: There will be popcorn. But how you order and chomp on those kernels may be different, along with several other changes designed to enhance your safety amidst the ongoing pandemic. Will the theater be cleaned regularly? Will seats be filled to capacity? And yes, how will you butter your popcorn? With your health top of mind, here’s how to navigate your first time back at the theater, so you can sit back, relax, and enjoy a show that isn’t on your spare, jerry-rigged laptop monitor or spent half-asleep on your couch for the millionth time.

Do your research

Although it may seem like the pandemic is winding down, the Delta variant and slowing vaccination rates mean we still have some time to go before this is fully in the rearview. Though regulations for indoor gatherings vary nationwide, you’ll likely see some universal safety precautions in place.

Before going to the movies, Dr. Eva Beaulieu, a board-certified internal medicine hospitalist, recommends checking your local movie theater’s cleaning regimen on their website to see which safety measures they’re taking to help prevent the spread of the virus. “Look at your local movie theater’s cleaning protocols to ensure they’re taking the proper precautions to help keep customers safe,” she says. In addition to the theater’s cleaning and disinfecting routine, you should also scope out the theater room size and capacity and whether the theater requires masks to be worn at all times. If you can’t find  the information you’re looking for online, give the venue a ring to inquire.  

Larger movie theater companies have new cleaning protocols and standards in place throughout their entire chain. For instance, AMC Theatres recently joined the Clorox Safer Today Alliance, “a collaborative partnership between world-class experts in infection control and healthcare protocols, to help increase safety measures for consumers now and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” notes Beaulieu, who’s also a Clorox spokesperson. 

The AMC Safe & Clean program (which was developed with input from Clorox and current and former faculty of Harvard University’s School of Public Health) includes enhanced cleaning procedures on common areas and high touch points, upgrading HVAC filters in all buildings to maximize fresh air flow, and installing multiple hand sanitizing and Clorox disinfectant wipe stations at every theater. While capacity limits and seat blocking are no longer in place, those restrictions may be reinstated in the future if needed or required due to the spread of variants. 

Follow these best practices

To stay as safe as possible at the movies, follow Beaulieu’s other advice:

  • Use an app or website to purchase tickets in advance, “which allows for touchless entry,” she says. Bonus: It’s simple, convenient, and you won’t have to worry about waiting in a line when you get to the theater.
  • Wear a mask if it's recommended. With the rapid spread of the Delta variant, the CDC's latest guidance now recommends that even fully vaccinated people wear a mask in public indoor settings if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission. It’s a bummer, we know, but a small price to pay to help do our part to avoid, you know, another year without the movies. 
  • If you can, pre-order your food. If this is available at your theater, Beaulieu suggests this as a way to minimize your exposure to other people waiting in line. (If there’s ever been a time for sneaking in your own pouch of dark chocolate covered almonds into the movie theater, this is it.) Also, wash your hands before diving into that bucket of popcorn. “Even after the pandemic, it’s good to maintain habits like washing or sanitizing your hands before eating,” she says.
  • Disinfect high-touch surfaces. Beaulieu urges movie goers to be mindful of surfaces like armrests and cup holders. “I carry disinfecting wipes with me to disinfect any hard surfaces on-the-go,” she says.