Plan to see a show or film? Your questions about Covid-safety in Australia answered

Going to the theatre or cinema carries risks, but you have opportunities to reduce that risk, says leading epidemiologist

With summer show capacities at 100% and festival season in full flight amid surging Covid numbers, arts lovers have been wrestling with a tough decision: should I use these tickets, or stay home?

“The risk of severe disease from Omicron if you’re triple vaccinated is low,” says Hassan Vally, an associate professor of epidemiology at Deakin university in Melbourne, who has 20 years’ experience in epidemiology under his belt.

“But at the same time, you should do everything you can to limit your exposure, particularly in the next three to four weeks as case numbers peak.”

“The next few weeks will be one of the worst times we’ve seen in terms of case numbers. If I hadn’t bought a ticket already, I wouldn’t be buying one now – especially if I was in an older age bracket or living with co-morbidities.”

So what can we do to reduce our personal risks while we support our theatres and cinemas? Prof Vally answers some of our most pressing questions.

Is it safe for me to sit in a theatre with 900 other people for three hours right now?

If you choose to do this, you should be triple vaccinated, Vally advises. If you’ve just got your booster, wait a week. “The booster is an extra level of protection that would give you assurance over and above wearing a mask and socially distancing,” he says – although you should wear a mask and socially distance too.

“And weigh up your personal circumstances. Are you in a vulnerable group or do you have regular contact with someone vulnerable? If that is the case, I would seriously consider staying home.”

Am I safer in a big theatre with more air, or a small theatre with fewer people?

Density matters, says Vally. “If you have 50 people in a small room and they are squashed together, that’s less safe than 1000 people in a big theatre if they are more spread out.”

The riskiest time for infection is getting into your seat and getting out after the show, he adds. “That’s when people crowd together. A lot will depend on how theatres manage that.”

What about eating and drinking in the foyer, and during the show?

Skip the wine and skip the snacks, says Vally. Seriously. Particularly in the foyer. “The foyer is one of the highest risk areas. If you are serious about reducing your risk, keep a low profile in the foyer and don’t socialise. Just enjoy the show or movie and then get out.”

“If everyone has their mask off in the foyer, and they are crammed together, it’s pointless taking all the other precautions,” Vally says, adding that conditions in the foyer are “messy”.

What about going to the toilet?

“I imagine the theatres have identified toilet queues as a really critical part of being safe in their safety plan,” Vally says. “Hopefully they have someone managing those lines and keeping everyone distanced. But if they don’t it’s back to personal responsibility. Make sure you keep your mask on, keep your distance and obviously wash your hands, for more than just Covid reasons!”

What kind of mask should I wear?

Any mask is better than no mask, though they do get significantly better from cloth, to surgical, to N95. “With Omicron so transmissible, I’d be using the best mask I could get my hands on,” says Vally.

What should I do if the person I’m sitting next to pulls down their mask during the show?

“That’s one of the hardest social problems we face,” Vally says. “I would assume the person has pulled their mask down and then forgotten to pull it back up, that’s so easy to do. So you can politely let them know they’ve let their mask slip down.”

I have tickets to a standup comedy show. Is it less safe to be in a room of people laughing?

This is where density limits are important, Vally says. “You want to keep your distance from people who are laughing a lot, because they are expelling a lot of air from their lungs. Wear the best possible mask and keep your distance as much as possible.”

What’s the best way to get to the show?

“Everything you do from the moment you walk out of the house, you are exposing yourself to risk,” says Vally. “If you go from your front door, into your car, drive to the car park and walk straight into the cinema or theatre, that is clearly a better situation then catching public transport and then being exposed to lots of people walking through a shopping centre.”

It’s safer to drive, even if that’s less environmentally friendly. “In reality, this will be for a short period of time, so on balance, it’s better to drive or get an Uber than being on public transport and potentially being exposed to lots of people before you get to the cinema or theatre.”

Is an outdoor cinema on a warm, still night better than an indoor one with air-con?

The science is clear on this, says Vally. “Outdoors is much, much better than indoors. Your risks of being infected are reduced significantly by being outdoors. An outdoor cinema or outdoor play is ideal.”

One of my children has been pinged as a close contact. Can I still go to the show?

Technically, you are allowed to go because you are not a close contact yourself. But … you probably shouldn’t. “What we know about the virus in households, it would be responsible of you to limit all contact with other people until you were sure what their status is,” advises Vally.

Check your local health guidelines on when you need to test and when to stop isolating. “A very small percentage of people may test positive beyond seven days because some people have a longer incubation period. But a decision has been made not to keep everyone in quarantine for longer because of that small risk,” Vally says. “This is a numbers game.”

My children are under 12. Is it safe for them to see a movie or show without wearing a mask?

Again, it’s about levels of risk. “If we are willing to accept some risk,” says Vally, “Then kids pose less of a risk than adults in terms of transmission and getting the virus themselves. It’s not a matter of safe or not safe, it’s just doing what we can to reduce the risks.”

What point in my vaccination journey will be the safest time for me to go out?

“You shouldn’t assume that just because you had your booster that morning you have increased protection immediately. Wait a few days or a week for it to kick in,” says Vally. “If you’ve already had two doses, you have fantastic protection against severe disease, and the booster is giving you even more.”

Can I dance if I stay 1.5m away from anyone else?

It depends on the ever-changing restrictions in your state – but if you’re going to that kind of event, take all reasonable precautions. “I hate to quote Greg Hunt, but don’t go into a moshpit,” says Vally. “Don’t do anything silly. If you’re outdoors you are safer … but if it was me, in the middle of a pandemic, I’d keep my distance and not dance among other people for the next few weeks at least.”

There are now new indoor hospitality and entertainment density limits in Victoria and some in NSW, except for theatres and cinemas – why is that? Are they safer than other venues?

The new rules recognise that theatres and cinemas are more of a “controlled environment” where people are not mingling, like they might be in a pub or nightclub. “In theatres and cinemas, people are masked and mostly seated in one place inside a well-ventilated indoor environment,” Vally says. “It is a pragmatic decision to help people get back to something close to normal.”

I tested positive the day after being in the audience. What should I do?

Firstly, do what the rules require you to do. “It would be a courtesy to let the theatre know, but the state health departments should do that and they need to factor in whether any further action is required,” Vally says.

There is a glimmer of hope. “It’s been a long two years but we are turning the corner and we will be able to do everything again,” he says. “But we have to get through the period we are in right now. We are not in a no-risk environment now, there needs to be a level of tolerance. But it’s about not taking unnecessary risks.”

Can you summarise all that for me?

In short, your risk is cumulative. Think about going to the theatre or a cinema as involving a series of activities that all have risks associated with them: you have opportunities to reduce your risk.

Wear the best possible mask and keep it on in the foyer. Limit your time in the foyer (stand outside) and limit the time with your mask off (skip the wine or the popcorn). Make sure you socially distance when you file into your seat and when you’re leaving the theatre, and don’t be shy asking people around you to remember to pop their masks back on. The aisles are high-risk bottleneck areas. Avoid queues. Do not lower your mask inside when the lights go down: keep it on. Think about how you travel to the theatre and how you get home. And think about other people too.


Elissa Blake

The GuardianTramp

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