What going to the movies looks like in the age of COVID-19

As movie theatres in some parts of Canada open their doors amid the COVID-19 pandemic, customers will notice new safety measures as they munch their popcorn.

Staggered seating and popcorn served behind Plexiglas all part of the new normal

A promotional image from Landmark Cinemas demonstrates how reduced capacity in theatres could encourage physical distancing. (Landmark Cinemas)

For some movie fans in Alberta, this weekend is a chance to return to their beloved pastime, sitting down with a bucket of popcorn and catching a movie. A number of cinemas in the province reopened Friday with more to follow next week in British Columbia, Quebec and other parts of Canada. 

But with cases of COVID-19 spiking in parts of the U.S. and much discussion about subsequent waves of the pandemic, going to the movies has changed:

  • Moviegoers will see physical distancing markers and Plexiglas dividers when they're picking up their popcorn at the concession stand.
  • Assigned seats purchased in advance mean patrons will be spaced out from other moviegoers in the theatre.
  • Movies will have staggered showtimes to avoid crowded lobby areas. 
  • Staffers, in masks or face shields, will serve patrons and encourage safe distancing, though movie chains Cineplex Entertainment and Landmark Cinemas Canada aren't mandating masks for customers.

WATCH | Landmark CEO Bill Walker shows how their cinemas have changed to keep customers safe

How cinemas are reopening during COVID-19

2 years ago
Duration 1:16
Landmark Cinemas CEO Bill Walker shows new safety protocols as movie theatres reopen in Alberta.

Landmark CEO BIll Walker says in regions such as Calgary where the majority aren't wearing masks, a ban on bare faces doesn't make sense. 

"While we fully support guests wearing masks, our staff are obviously wearing masks and we understand the health benefits that can be attributed to that. But unless it's mandated in the overall market, I think for theatres to step out beyond and mandate that for our guests is not something that seems reasonable to us."

A doctor's prescription for safe cinema

Though she's missed heading out to a movie, Dr. Lynora Saxinger says she's hesitant about returning herself.

"It's a shared airspace, with air conditioning, with people, with a fairly long contact time because most movies are approaching two hours," said Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger says customers should pick less popular showtimes and wear masks wherever possible. (CBC)

For those who are ready, however, Saxinger says there are a few practical ways to minimize your risk. 

"I would be looking critically at the bathroom.... You'd want to use it when you were distanced from other patrons in the bathroom, potentially alone if possible. And you'd be really meticulous about hand hygiene after being to the concession, the bathroom, after using the ticket machine, anything [that] is a high-touch surface," she said. 

WATCH | Movie fans on when they will feel safe returning to the cinema: 

Movie fans consider the risks of COVID-19

2 years ago
Duration 1:04
CBC News asked three major film fans how they feel about returning to the theatre during a pandemic.

With so many variables it's tough to be definitive. Saxinger says the risks depend on the level of testing and community transmission in your area.

In addition to keeping hand sanitizer at the ready and donning a mask, she also recommends wearing glasses (which provide some eye protection) instead of contacts and choosing a less-popular show time.

"I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility to go and enjoy a movie, but how many other people are enjoying it would be a big issue for me. The fewer the better, so maybe choose a matinee."

Rising cases means bumped blockbusters

As for what moviegoers will be watching, the movie release calendar is a work in progress as the U.S. contends with new coronavirus hot spots. 

Christopher Nolan's sci-fi action spectacle Tenet has already changed dates twice and is now scheduled for Aug. 12.

Disney's big screen adaption of the animated cartoon Mulan had been scheduled for July 24, but is now slated for Aug. 21. 

While industry analyst Jeff Bock wonders if Disney will suffer any backlash for releasing a family film during a pandemic, he's less surprised to see theatres opening their doors. 

"I think we're looking at it as a do or die situation for the old model. [The] reason that theatres are pushing to open is because they are on the brink of collapse and don't let anybody tell you differently. They need these films in theatres to get people to come. They need them to buy concessions," Bock said.

Before the pandemic the exhibition industry was already struggling against declining attendance figures and the convenience of viewing streaming content at home.

With the release of future blockbusters in flux, Bock says what will bring fans to the films will be different this summer. 

"The word of mouth is no longer gonna be, 'Was that movie good?' It's going to be: 'How safe was it? What was the sanitizer situation like? How was the line for the bathroom?' These are the issues that really are going to be front and centre."

With files from Jackson Weaver

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?