Is it safe to go back to the cinemas in Singapore?

The coronavirus is still out there, lurking about like your third-rate Jason Vorhees. So in a movie-obsessed city like Singapore, is returning to the theatres a good idea?

At this time of writing, the United States is the country with the most coronavirus-related cases and deaths, at 6.65 million and 197,000, respectively.

Having gone past “preventative”, the US is going for “reactive” measures by enforcing social distancing and face mask policies. But other than the bullshit that COVID truthers are pimping or US citizens exercising their right not to wear a mask or the stubborn insistence in hanging out in big groups to celebrate, scientists are afraid that numbers might climb when schools and cinemas reopen.

Back in June, Dr. Ravina Kullar, an epidemiologist and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society Of America, said that “it’s too soon to go to a movie theatre”. It doesn’t look as though that’s changed.

“Art may save your soul but it can kill you”

Fortunately, Singapore isn’t America. While many dining and entertainment venues – including cinemas – were closed in March, they’ve gradually reopened when the country moved into ‘Phase Two’ of its ‘Circuit Breaker’ quasi-lockdown in June. Restaurants are allowing dine-in guests, there is life in the shopping district of Orchard Road, you can wait in line for your bubble tea, and, since July 13, the cineplexes are finally operational.

So it is safe to watch a movie in a cinema? We’ll get to that. First, we need to talk about the moral implications of showing a movie during these COVID times.

Tenet review
John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’. Credit: Warner Bros.

Two of the much-talked-about films of 2020 are coming out this season – The New Mutants and Tenet. I mean, they were originally set to be released on April 13 and July 17, respectively, before the dates were pushed back due to the pandemic.

Okay, so if it’s dangerous to screen it at the cinema, why not release it online? Well, because of the weird romanticism of art.

When asked about if The New Mutants would ever go to streaming, the director Josh Boone said that the movie’s last act “was designed to be seen on big screens, like IMAX screens, like it has a massive bear in it and crazy sound design”. And Christopher Nolan is adamant that his film, Tenet, has – nay, needs – to be screened in cinemas. Nolan is a proponent of the theatrical experience, heralding a night out at the movies as a “vital part of social life”.

Steven Spielberg, another proponent of the cinema experience, even went as far as to inveigh against having Netflix compete in the Oscars, instead suggesting that the video streaming company is more suited for the Emmys – the awards for TV shows.

I’m not shitting on Nolan or any other director’s request on how their work should be played. Artists have specific directions on how their art needs to be displayed in a gallery. Watching a film on your laptop isn’t gonna be awesome as any director envisions it on the big screen.

But if your art supersedes safety measures, not only does it put people at risk of getting COVID – it also makes you morally reprehensible. Art may save your soul but it can kill you.

The New Mutants
‘The New Mutants’ has suffered setbacks for the last two years that have kept it out of cinemas. Credit: 20th Century Studios

Anyway, Singapore isn’t America. We have aggressively tried to flatten the curve and keep the numbers down. Measures have been taken to ensure that the environment is safe for patrons to sit through a film. And that’s because movies are important in the city: Singapore has one of the highest cinemagoing populations in the world, and about 300 theatres are dotted around a small island of 5.7 million people.

When cinemas reopened in July, there were caveats. According to a directive from the country’s media watchdog, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), each cinema hall would have to be capped at 50 patrons, and patrons have to be seated at a respectable distance from one another.

The problem is the loophole. Y’know, the loophole in this little ditty by the IMDA: “Patrons are required to have masks on at all times except when they are consuming food and beverages inside the cinema hall. After eating/drinking, patrons should put masks back on.”

“It’d be hard to argue that popcorn and watered-down Coca-Cola are worth the risk of infection”

Technically, you can eat or drink as slow as it takes for the movie to run – and not wear your mask at all. Nice save, Perry Mason.

And there will always be rotten apples who would love to take advantage of the loophole. The coronavirus is spread through contact and respiratory droplets; the latter occurs when someone coughs, sneezes, talks or chews vigorously with their mouths wide open. Anyone within a metre may breathe in said droplets into their lungs.

That’s why many entertainment venues in Singapore were shuttered during Phase One of the Circuit Breaker. Even with the arrival of Phase Two, bars, KTV outlets and clubs remain closed for the unforeseeable future.

Similarly for cinemas, regardless of social distancing, it isn’t quite safe if someone a few seats away is scream-laughing at some antics on the big screen, their stupid faces left exposed on the pretext that they’re still shovelling food into their mouths.

singapore coronavirus universal studios
In Singapore, masks are mandatory, safe distancing measures are rigorously enforced and social gatherings are limited to five people. Credit: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

So, here’s my suggestion. It might be a tad controversial, it may be extreme, but, damn it, when it comes to the coronavirus, there are no half-measures: BAN FOOD AND DRINKS IN MOVIE THEATRES. It’d be hard to argue that popcorn and watered-down Coca-Cola are worth the risk of infection, however small.

I get why concessions are staples at the movies. When a theatre shows a film, part of the ticket sales returns to the pockets of the movie distributors. On the other hand, everything a cinema makes on concession profits goes straight to its pockets. That’s one thing that keeps cinemas alive.

“If your art supersedes safety measures, not only does it put people at risk of getting COVID – it also makes you morally reprehensible”

But if eating and drinking are preventing one from masking up, then it stands to reason to forbid food and drinks. In the arts and drama scene, many theatres have a ‘no eating or drinking’ policy within its hallowed halls. Maybe it helps to equate that practice to that of a night out at the movies.

Suppose you need to preserve some semblance of the bottom dollar. Cinemaplexes could have a holding area, where patrons can eat and drink (at a respectable distance from one another) just before the movie starts. Also, have the ushers prowl the halls to spot errant patrons not complying with regulations.

The recent collapse of a ventilation duct in a cinema hall in a shopping mall here feels like an omen. But I’m not the superstitious sort. In this strange moment of history, where respiratory infections abound, things falling from the sky with the possibility of killing you isn’t the worst thing to happen at the movies.


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