How will social distancing work when UK cinemas reopen?

Cinemas could re-open in July, with strict social distancing rules. (Credit: Getty)
Cinemas could re-open in July, with strict social distancing rules. (Credit: Getty)

Cineworld has announced it plans to reopen screens on 10 July. Cinemas in the UK have been closed since around 18 March, just prior to the official lockdown announcement.

The reopening of cinemas and theatres formed part of Boris Johnson’s map out of lockdown announced in May, with multiplexes in a list of venues that may be able to open from 4 July, dependent on how the virus progressed over the following weeks.

Now Cineworld has become the first chain of cinemas to announce when it will reopen, sharing details of what customers can expect when they do. It has yet to share details of what films will be on when it reopens, and says ticket bookings will begin in July, however on Twitter, the chain confirmed it will reopen with “classic films” before the new releases start rolling out.

What will social distancing rules entail?

Safe distancing is observed on the escalators exiting Liverpool Street Station during rush hour on May 13, 2020 in London. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Safe distancing is observed on the escalators exiting Liverpool Street Station during rush hour on May 13, 2020 in London. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Cineworld has revealed the measures it is taking to ensure the safety of its staff and customers when they reopen in July.

These include:

  • Social distancing “across all areas within the cinema”.

  • Hand washing, with antibacterial soap and handwashing guidelines for customers and staff.

  • Hand sanitiser stations.

  • Additional cleaning for ‘high touch points’ within the cinema.

  • E-ticketing, with emails used for tickets.

  • Updated seating maps “to allow friends and family to sit together while ensuring a safe distance between customers”.

  • Staggered film times “to reduce customers cross paths with other customers” and additional cleaning time between films.

  • Plastic screens at the till for staff.

  • Contactless payments.

  • Training and personal protective equipment “provided to employees where the risk assessment has deemed it necessary”.

  • Support from team members “to offer assistance to customers”.

Rival chain Vue said in a statement last month about its safety plan: “We have been liaising closely with authorities across Europe to design operating procedures that can provide the degree of social distancing required and allow an experience for our customers and staff that is as safe as possible.”

Tenet (Credit: Warner Bros)
Tenet (Warner Bros)

The company pointed to the potential for “isolating family groups” using its online booking system, so they could sit together while maintaining safe distance from other patrons.

Film times would be staggered to make distancing either and the chain will introduce “enhanced cleaning and employee protection protocols”.

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There has not yet been any mention of face coverings in cinemas. The guidelines issued by the government advised members of the public to “wear a face covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible”.

Phil Clapp, of the UK Cinema Association, welcomed the proposed July reopening and said he is “in discussion” with the government about the safeguards that will be needed. Clapp suggested these safeguards, some of which were mentioned by Vue, will be observed across the entire sector.

He did, however, note that this is not a foregone conclusion and that “wider public health considerations” may scupper even the best laid of plans for multiplexes to open.

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So plans are afoot for cinemas to finally throw open their doors. Cinema chains are preparing the safety measures that will allow them to entertain audiences again, with Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bender Tenet among the films hoping to lift the curtain.

Will cinemas reopen in July?

Cinema chains certainly seem to think so. Naturally, there’s a financial imperative for multiplexes to open as soon as possible and so it’s a tricky balance to strike between caution and commerce. Notably, a brief reopening of Chinese cinemas was shelved in late March after infection rates began to climb. Tentatively, the country’s government issued guidelines last week on potential reopening.

Johnson’s guidelines positioned cinemas as part of the third stage of the government’s “roadmap” for lifting the coronavirus lockdown and so 4 July was the absolute earliest date that the venues will be allowed to open. Christopher Nolan’s secretive thriller Tenet is slated for a 31 July release, with Disney’s Mulan currently slated to be first out of the gate on 24 July – although many predict that may be pushed back too.

The question exists, though, around whether audiences will be willing to simply flock back to the cinema. A survey by Variety in April painted a worrying picture for cinema operators, but John Fithian, the president of the National Association Of Theatre Owners in the US, said he strongly believes there will be “a rush to cinemas” when doors open again.