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Movie house rules set, but health experts still uneasy

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MANILA, Philippines — Malacañang on Thursday sought to allay medical experts’ fears that reopening movie houses in Metro Manila would cause an increase in COVID-19 infections, pointing out that cinemas would be allowed to let in only a limited number of vaccinated viewers seated apart from one another and wearing face masks all the time.

Long-shuttered movie theaters are among the businesses that can take in customers again when Metro Manila is downgraded to alert level 3 beginning Oct. 16, although the move was met with apprehension by healthcare workers.

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Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque reiterated that Metro Manila’s healthcare utilization rate was good, which means it could care for those who would become severely ill.

It is time to consider the people who need to return to work to make a living, Roque said.

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‘Not lazy’

“Let us not keep on resorting to lockdowns because Filipinos are not lazy, they just want a chance to earn a living,” Roque said at a press briefing. “Let us also think of those who are working in sectors related to cinemas. Not just the cinemas themselves, but also the actors, the cameramen, the extras, all of them depend on these for their livelihood.”

“We’re talking about livelihood here and we’re not sacrificing health because we have reached the point where almost 80 percent of Metro Manila is vaccinated,” he added.

At present, 65 percent of intensive care unit beds, 44 percent of isolation beds, 48 percent of ward beds, and half of ventilators are in use, he noted.

Roque added that there were protocols to be implemented to make moviegoing safe for customers and staff.

Under the guidelines for alert level 3, cinemas can operate at only 30 percent of their indoor venue capacity.

All moviegoers, as well as theater staff, have to be fully vaccinated and the Department of Health (DOH) has also required proper ventilation for cinemas, which must use an air purifier system, Roque said.

Cinema Exhibitors Association of the Philippines president Charmaine Bauzon earlier said that aside from enforcing physical distancing, moviegoers have to keep their face masks on at all times.

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They would not be allowed to eat while watching the movie, Bauzon said.

Potential superspreader

But healthcare experts on Thursday warned that the reopening of cinemas was very risky and could lead to a surge in new COVID-19 infections.

Dr. Tony Leachon, a former adviser to the National Task Force Against COVID-19, said theaters were poorly ventilated and could become superspreader venues.

“It is very risky because theaters are indoors and can involve being near crowds. Being in a theater puts you at higher risk for COVID-19,” Leachon said in a phone interview, adding that the risk of transmission would increase even more when moviegoers remove their face coverings to eat.

“You can have all the protocols in place but the environment is not yet ready. How about the risk of Delta transmission? Can we ensure the safety of our people?” he said.

Dr. Maricar Limpin, Philippine College of Physicians board member and Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 co-convener, said in a separate phone interview that it would be risky to open movie houses since it was hard to monitor minimum public health safety standards in dark theaters.

“The chance of transmitting and contracting COVID-19 will certainly be greater,” she said.

Limpin noted how restaurants were allowed to accommodate only 30 percent of their indoor capacity, but in reality, the number of diners was often exceeded, and the same thing could likely happen in cinemas.

“This can be the cause of another rise in cases, especially if we have unvaccinated persons entering the cinema,” she said.

Leachon said that while he advocated government policies that would allow the public to live with the virus, he said this could be done only if certain steps were taken.

He called on each local government to make public their positivity rate and vaccination rates to enable the government “to deploy the tests and vaccines where they are needed most.”

Leachon also called on the DOH to include emergency room usage in its metrics when measuring healthcare utilization in the country.

Limpin echoed Leachon’s suggestions, adding that the government should implement interventions, such as increasing testing capacity.

“If cases rise again, there should be clear criteria of when to escalate or upgrade the alert level,” she said.

Getting ready

Megaworld Corp., which has 25 cinemas in Metro Manila, said it would take about a month to actually reopen to give way to thorough disinfecting and retrofitting of seats to ensure safe distancing. The tentative reopening date target for these malls is November 12.

Stephen Tan, president of SM Supermalls, said: “We are currently assessing our readiness to open our cinemas. We are evaluating all our facilities, internal resources and reviewing our safety protocols.”

Robinsons Land Corp. said it would wait for the final government guidelines for the reopening of cinemas. —With a report from Doris Dumlao-Abadilla

For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
What you need to know about Coronavirus.
For more information on COVID-19, call the DOH Hotline: (02) 86517800 local 1149/1150.

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