Will Highly Contagious Coronavirus Variants Doom Movie Theaters' Reopening Plans?

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Will Highly Contagious Coronavirus Variants Doom Movie Theaters’ Reopening Plans?

Long-suffering theater chains will have to see who wins the race between the vaccine and more infectious versions of the virus

The pandemic has thrown another curveball to the beleaguered movie theater industry: Newly discovered highly contagious variants could further delay the widespread reopening of theaters.

The variants are natural mutations that have developed over the past year of the pandemic, and the one that has epidemiologists most concerned is called B117, a more easily transmissible variant first discovered in Great Britain and now found in at least 20 U.S. states. In an interview on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said that preliminary evidence from British scientists suggests — but does not yet prove — that B117 may also be a deadlier version of the virus.

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If the spread of B117 outpaces efforts to make the populace immune to COVID-19, movie theaters will be among the businesses that will take the hardest hit. A faster-spreading virus could keep hospitals and ICU beds full even as the number of people that are vulnerable to the virus gets smaller through vaccination. The longer it takes for hospital strain to ease, the longer theaters will have to wait to reopen as they are expected to be among the last allowed to do so by health officials.

On top of that, B117 could further complicate the challenge theater owners face of convincing the public that their auditoriums are safe places to spend two hours in mixed company. Dr. John Swartzberg, infectious disease expert at UC Berkeley, told TheWrap that B117 and other more contagious variants could easily be transmitted in indoor environments that for months have been considered low-risk areas, such as grocery stores. That makes movie theaters, which Swartzberg has warned are among the most dangerous environment for contracting COVID, even more likely to become infection hotspots and may make health officials more reticent to reopen them until widespread vaccination and herd immunity are achieved, which may not happen until autumn.

“If you look specifically at movie theaters, frankly if we can ignore that there’s more transmissible variants, I think are the last place I’d want to go aside from maybe a restaurant or a bar,” Swartzberg said. “Theaters are going to need to have a lot of air filtration and exchanges to maximize the amount of air flow through these buildings. That will help, but the last thing you want to do is be in an indoor place with other people for such an extended period of time.”

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Multiple variants of COVID-19, Swartzberg said, likely have already developed in the United States, including one that was just discovered in California this past week.

“Until very recently, the United States has been very far behind the rest of the world in terms of tracking these variants,” he warned. “This is just evolution: The virus trying to survive and replicate, and, in addition to getting people vaccinated quickly, and maintaining social distance, we will have to monitor these variants to see if any become resistant to immunity.”

So far, scientists say there’s no evidence that the vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna don’t also protect against B117, and the two pharmaceutical companies have announced they are working on booster shots to counter other variants, such as a strain discovered in South Africa that the FDA says may be resistant. But given how fast B117 has spread, Swartzberg estimates that it could become the dominant strain seen in U.S. hospitals by this spring, when the Biden Administration hopes to have vaccinated at least 100 million Americans.

Eric Schiffer, financial analyst and CEO of the Patriarch Organization, agreed with Swartzberg and thinks theater owners have yet to grasp how much of a risk the variants can be to their reopening plans.

“The likelihood of people clamoring in the second half of 2021 to go into a theater to see a movie when the South African variant isn’t necessarily being managed by this vaccine raises serious questions about theaters’ business premise,” Schiffer told TheWrap. “We don’t actually know how long it will take for audiences to feel comfortable in theaters again when officials allow them to reopen or how those variants will affect their feelings when they become common among new cases.”

For now, theater owners just seem to be focusing on getting through the next few months, as the vaccination process trudges on. AMC Theatres this week announced $917 million in new cash flow to help it get through the first half of the year with the hopes that normal theatrical releasing will resume sometime in the third quarter. CEO Adam Aron told TheWrap that based on his talks with health experts, including professors at Harvard Medical School, he expects hospitalizations to noticeably decrease as early as when the vaccination process reaches 20% completion. As for the variants, Aron said that AMC would keep an eye on them.

“All I can tell you is that we will follow the science, take the precautions we need to take, and what I’m hearing from health experts is that conditions are going to be much better this summer than where we are in presently,” he said.

Jeremy Fuster