CJ Analysis: The Number of COVID-19 Outbreaks Traced to Cinemas is Zero

By Patrick von Sychowski | October 19, 2020 2:26 am PDT

An extensive study undertaken by Celluloid Junkie has found that not a single outbreak of COVID-19 anywhere across the globe can be traced to a cinema, multiplex or public screening venue.

With a majority of global cinemas closed in the first half of 2020, and with health and government officials sounding alarms about the threat posed by indoor spaces, we wondered if there were examples of movie theatres or cinemas being vectors for COVID-19. Having monitored the decimating effect the coronavirus pandemic has had on the global theatrical exhibition industry – not to mention the enormous cost to human life, health and the global economy – since cinemas first closed in China back in February, Celluloid Junkie has been tracking and tracing all news relating to COVID-19 and cinemas across multiple continents, countries and languages.

While it is impossible to prove a negative definitively, we can now state with confidence that to-date no major outbreak or transmission of COVID-19 can be attributed to cinemas or movie theatres. We will outline our methodology and findings below.

With some cinemas being forced to close due to lack of major Hollywood releases, as well as new government-mandated restrictions in territories ranging from Malaysia to the Republic of Ireland, it should be remembered that in some markets cinemas are only just reopening after first being forced to shut (India), while in others never reopened (notably New York City and Los Angeles). Restrictions on public gatherings, that can encompass everything from bars and restaurants to churches and weddings, is usually the reason cinemas are closed or not allowed to reopen.

The science for restricting indoor gatherings is based on the SARS-Cov-2 virus primarily being transmitted via aerosol (coughing, sneezing, breathing) rather than fomites (touching surfaces). Yet in some territories different types of indoor gatherings are permitted, while others are banned. New York for example allows churches and bowling alleys to operate, but not cinemas. The decision on whether cinemas are allowed to be open or closed often has more to with politics than science, despite none being tied to incidents of past outbreaks. This is in contrast to COVID-19 infections traced back to specific churches, restaurants, night clubs, bars, coffee shops and even the White House.

Tracking and Tracing Cinema-Related COVID-19 Cases
In trying to form a picture of whether cinemas have been the source of any COVID-19 outbreak Celluloid Junkie has used a range of tools:

  • Google News Alerts in multiple languages has allowed us to track, on a daily basis, news and articles relating to cinemas throughout the year;
  • Using Google Translate has enabled us to expand the news tracking beyond English plus other languages we speak and whilst not perfect it has worked well enough;
  • We have been in constant contact with the major cinema trade bodies, including UNIC, NATO, MTAC, the Global Cinema Federation, SAWA and others;
  • On a variety of platforms (email, LinkedIn, Twitter, Zoom, etc.) we have engaged with close to one hundred cinema chains, operators and their senior management;
  • With the regular #CJCinemaSummit we have interviewed and spoken with leading figures across the entire cinema industry value chain since March.

In addition we have written and covered the issue of cinemas and safety in several articles (here, here, here and here), as well as in online presentations and forums. Where we have not published articles ourselves, we have shared articles of interest relating to these issues on LinkedIn and Twitter. We are not claiming to be a peer-reviewed scientific study on the matter, but we feel that we have searched and documented as exhaustively as is possible for a news organisation to map the impact of COVID-19 on a specific business sector. So let’s start with the science.

Seongyeonggwan quarantine work. (image: CJ CGV)

Study Confirms No Transmission In Country Where Cinemas Never Shut
Although more than 95% of the world’s cinemas and/or screens were dark during the peak of the first coronavirus wave, there were several territories where movie theatres did not close completely. In Asia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan were the three markets where cinemas kept projector lights burning, while in Europe it was Sweden that was famously the outlier in keeping cinemas and other parts of its economy going. While none of these countries escaped the virus completely, they were able to control it to a large extent.

In South Korea the Film Promotion Committee (also known as the Youngjin Committee) carried out a study under the aegis of the Film Industry Safety Management Committee on the 22nd of September which analysed the status of confirmed COVID-19 cases relating to cinemas. South Korea has had an extensive contact tracing system in place since the outbreak of the pandemic, helped by the high technology level of a nation famed for its Samsung smartphones. The committee found that between 1 February and 20 September of this year there were 49 visits by a person later confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 to a cinema. In total there were 31.5 million cinema visits during this time period, yet none of the 49 infected cinemagoers appear to have passed on the virus to another audience or staff member.

According to Nocutnews, “The remarkably low number of visits of confirmed patients compared to the total number of cinema audiences, and the absence of additional infections and transmission cases, is a result of the improved level of quarantine and active cooperation of the audience.” It should be noted that mask wearing in Korea, as well as China, Japan and Southeast Asian countries was common even before the coronavirus pandemic, partly due to previous outbreaks, such as SARS and MERS. South Korea has also put in place significant technology resources to minimise human contact, through automated ticketing, self-serve concessions and even a robot greeter.

Other Studies Confirm That Cinemas Are Relatively Safe
While it is always possible to find a medical expert to say that it is not safe to visit a cinema (though neither is crossing the road), there have been several studies that confirm cinemas as being one of the lowest risk indoors environments in terms of potential spread. One such study was by UC Davis Health:

“It sounds like trouble – many people confined indoors, in one room, for a prolonged period,” said Natascha Tuznik, a UC Davis Health associate professor of infectious disease. “But now that masks are required – and if the theater does everything right – a theater should pose less risk of person-to-person transmission than many other places people are going now.”

Another study by the Hermann-Rietschel-Instituts der Technischen Universität in Berlin, Germany, undertaken on behalf of German cinema trade body HDF. “If you only breathe in the cinema, the number of inhaled aerosols is still well below that in an office where people are speaking, even with an excessively long film. According to the study, this is also related to the type of ventilation in the cinemas.”

It is important to note that while cinema appears to represent a relatively low risk of transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, this is not the same as claiming that these venues represent no risk at all. Moreover, people have not stopped going to grocery shops or traveling on public transport, even though both of these represent a very real risk of catching the virus. “This is not risk-free, and it’s important for the public to understand that,” said Dr. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious-disease specialist from the Medical College of Wisconsin, is quoted as saying in a WSJ article in August. But she stresses that “As of today, there isn’t any medical literature [or] published studies out there that show that a movie theater has been a venue for viral transmission. Honestly, time will tell.” [added emphasis.]

In the two months since Sanchez’s statement no additional infections have been traced to cinemas, even with both the release of “Tenet” and China’s return to box-office normalcy. “Nothing is 100 percent safe,” Dr. Robert Lahita, chairman of medicine at St. Joseph’s Health in New Jersey, professor of medicine at New York Medical College, and adjunct professor of medicine at Rutgers told Vulture magazine. “But I would say you’re 95 percent safe if you go to the movies [with all of the stated measures in place].”

Dietrich Theater Neu-Ulm
Dietrich Theater Neu-Ulm – where Cinemagoer Zero was tracked to. (Photo: Tripadvisor)

Global Examples of Positive COVID-19 Cinemagoers and Staff

To demonstrate that we have not just rely on medical opinion and studies, or that we have simply come up empty-handed in terms specific cases, we can point to a handful of little-publicised cases of infected people being linked to a cinema visit, even when they neither caught nor spread the disease there.

Leaving aside China, where the virus outbreak began in the city of Wuhan, the first known coronavirus infection where a cinema was involved was a visit in late February in the Baden-Württemberg district of Göppingen to the Dietrich Theater in Neu-Ulm by a 25-year old who later developed COVID-19 symptoms. There, on Saturday 22 February the man watched “Bad Boys for Life” in seat 13 in the second row at the 20:00 screening attended by 138 people. He was one of the first ever confirmed COVID-19 cases in Germany. The authorities tracked and traced people who were seated around him, but none of them were infected as far as we have been able to establish from German news reporting.

In Singapore, on 15 July, a cinemagoer who attended a screening at GoldenVillage VivoCity in Hall 4 was identified as having been COVID-19 infected at the time. It was reported that “the cinema’s management had immediately cancelled all upcoming shows in the affected hall and activated their NEA-listed cleaning and disinfecting agency to carry out thorough deep cleansing and sanitisation of the hall and all general access areas.” No associated infections were ever reported.

There has also been at least one case in the UK where cinema staff tested positive for COVID-19. One such case was two team members from the Odeon Silverlink cinema complex near Wallsend in September after cinemas reopened in the United Kingdom. “Having tested our relevant colleagues at Silverlink, two colleagues who tested positive were isolated and are now recovering at home,” Odeon is quoted as saying. “In this case, we responded at speed and in line with government guidelines. The strength and effectiveness of our detailed cleaning measures ensured that our cinema remained open and safe.” No guests or additional staff members were reported as being infected from this incident.

Lastly, we were made aware by the Movie Theatre Association of Canada (MTAC) that they have found cases of cinema employee infections, none of which resulted in a spread. According to MTAC “out of more than 200 locations surveyed, there have been only five instances of confirmed COVID-19 cases in people inside cinema environments – all employees who self-screened, sought tests and reported results.” MTAC executive director Nuria Bronfman cited this finding in an open letter to the authorities of Ontaria in urging them to allow cinema to open.

Beyond these four global findings, two involving patrons and seven involving employees, we have not been able to verify further COVID-19 case relating to a cinema. If anyone has come across further cases we welcome if you could share them with us, so that we can continue to update and track the situation.

Where Outbreaks DO Happen 

It is also worth providing some perspective that the lack of outbreaks in movie theatres is not down to luck or near misses, especially when compared to other forms of public gatherings. In South Korea, where 31.5 million cinema visits were shown to have involved 49 infected patrons but no outbreaks, several major spreads were traced to Korean churches. More than 400 cases were traced to a single church and over 5,000 cases were traced to the Shincheonji sect. Meanwhile, also in Korea, 66 cases were linked to a single Starbucks outlet in the city of Paju, north of Seoul, back in August.

So while churches and even Starbucks are proven sources of major COVID-19 outbreaks, cinema operators are understandably unhappy that places of worship and coffee franchises are allowed to be open, while movie theatres are closed or under restrictions. This is not to say that at no point in the future will there be a transmission traced to a cinema. However, given that cinemas have either been open throughout the pandemic (South Korea and Sweden), reopened safely since the first wave (UK and most US states) or even largely returned to pre-COVID levels (China) it is notable that we have not been able to establish a single incident of COVID-19 transmission that took place in the confined space of a cinema anywhere in the world.

Ultimately it is up to patrons to decide whether they feel safe going to the cinema, but for politicians deciding whether cinemas should be allowed to be open, the message is that the evidence points to cinemas being one of the safest indoor spaces in terms of COVID-19 infections, provided all precautions and sanitation measures are being adhered to. So let us repeat for clarity, despite over a hundred million visits to cinemas across the world since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, not a single outbreak has been traced to any type of cinema.

Patrick von Sychowski
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