How will social distancing work when UK cinemas re-open?

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

The first glimmers of a light at the end of the lockdown tunnel were announced by the British government on Sunday, with some restrictions lifting in a limited way this week. Cinemas in the UK have been closed since around 18 March, just prior to the official lockdown announcement.

Read more: Films streaming early due to coronavirus

Last week, UK Cinema Association chief executive Phil Clapp suggested cinemas could open as soon as the end of June and Boris Johnson included multiplexes in a list of venues that may be able to open from 4 July, dependent on how the virus progresses over the next few weeks.

But is that realistic? And what will those cinemas look like?

Could cinemas re-open in July?

Vue Cinema in London's Leicester Square on March 21, 2020. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

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 re-opening 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 re-opening.

Latest coronavirus news, updates and advice

Live: Follow all the latest updates from the UK and around the world

Fact-checker: The number of COVID-19 cases in your local area

6 charts and maps that explain how COVID-19 is spreading

Johnson’s guidelines position cinemas as part of the third stage of the government’s “roadmap” for lifting the coronavirus lockdown and so 4 July is the absolute earliest date that the venues will be allowed to open. Christopher Nolan’s secretive thriller Tenet is slated for a 17 July release, and looks likely to be the first new blockbuster of the re-opening — if it proceeds as planned.

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 States, said he strongly believes there will be “a rush to cinemas” when doors open again.

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)

The best guess for this comes from a statement Vue Cinemas gave to the BBC this week, which hinted at a number of potential measures for how the chain could make its 91 British and Irish venues safe for customers.

Vue said: “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.”

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”.

Read more: Inside the Universal vs. Cinemas dispute

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”.

Tenet (Credit: Warner Bros)

Phil Clapp of the UK Cinema Association welcomed the proposed July re-opening 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.

Read more: Robert Pattinson teases spectacle of Tenet

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 hoping to lift the curtain. Or maybe it’ll be that weird Russell Crowe road rage movie.