New Federal Coronavirus Guidelines Specify When Movie Theaters Could Reopen

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President Donald Trump announced new proposed guidelines on Thursday for how and when the U.S. economy can reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, which include a phased plan for audiences to return to movie theaters.

The plan, dubbed “Opening Up America Again,” sets a series of proposed benchmarks, or “gating criteria,” that states and regions (like counties and metropolitan areas) would have to satisfy before they could start to relax social distancing restrictions and business closures. They include:

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  • There must be a downward trajectory of reported flu-like illnesses and cases with COVID-like symptoms.
  • There must be a downward trajectory of documented COVID-19 cases, or positive COVID-19 tests.
  • Hospitals must be able to treat all patients without crisis care, and have a robust testing program for at-risk health care workers.

Once states could satisfy all of these criteria within a 14-day period, they could move to Phase One, which allows, among other aspects, for large venues — including movie theaters, sporting venues and sit-down restaurants — to reopen, but only “under strict physical distancing protocols.” While outlining the parameters of Phase One, Dr. Deborah Birx noted that these “strict” protocols included “maintaining six feet” of distance between individuals.

Phase One also stipulates that non-essential travel should be minimized, and that people should avoid gathering in groups larger than 10 which “do not readily allow for appropriate physical distancing.”

In Phase Two — when a state or region reaches the gating criteria a second time without a rebound of COVID-19 cases — large venues could allow patrons under “moderate physical distancing protocols,” and individuals are discouraged from gatherings of 50 or more people without appropriate social distancing. And Phase Three, which Dr. Birx referred to as “our new normal” before a working COVID-19 vaccine is established, relaxes restrictions further to “limited physical distancing protocols” for public venues.

In prepared remarks at the start of the press conference announcing the plan, President Trump expressed somewhat contradicting impulses, emphasizing both speed and caution in reopening the economy.

“We must have a working economy, and we want to get it back very, very quickly,” President Trump said, only to add minutes later, “We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time, and some states will be able to open up sooner than others.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, speaking earlier in the day, also emphasized that the guidelines recognize that different states have different circumstances. But the full measure of what constitutes “strict,” “moderate” and “limited” social distancing remains unclear.

Dr. Birx emphasized that there was no timeline on any of the phases. But both President Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci noted in the press conference that some states have already met the gating criteria and could reopen soon; the president said 29 states are “in the ball game” of being able to open soon, and Montana and Utah could begin reopen “literally tomorrow.” Dr. Fauci, however, also noted that “there may be some setbacks” in which a rebound of COVID-19 cases would cause states or regions to have to backtrack and reintroduce more severe restrictions.

The guidelines also outline “preparedness responsibilities” for each state including testing and contact tracing, capacity for healthcare facilities, and protection for essential workers and high-risk communities.

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