SARS fears shutter Beijing theaters

'Two Towers,' 'Daredevil,' 'Core' affected by closures

BEIJING — Authorities shuttered Beijing’s 100-plus theaters late Saturday night in an attempt to stop the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) by limiting individual contact in public places.

The closure came on the day that the China Film Group bowed “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Other Hollywood pics that will be hit by the ban include “Daredevil,” due to open mid-May, and “The Core.”

The U.S. majors, which had already informally discussed changing release dates with the China Film Group, may now have to reconsider plans.

However, one Hollywood rep noted before the ban that release slots for U.S. films are so coveted under the country’s strict annual quota he worries that if dates are changed “we can’t be sure we’ll get them back.”

The Beijing Municipal Culture Bureau, Public Security Bureau and the Industry and Commerce Bureau made the closure decision jointly, under the national law on epidemic prevention and treatment.

The order, which also includes karaoke houses, Internet bars and electronic game bars, was publicized on the English-lingo Web site of the People’s Daily, the state-run newspaper and Communist Party mouthpiece.

However, the vast majority of people in China’s capital were already staying home. On Saturday the normally bustling entertainment district of Sanlitun was virtually empty save a few foreigners who sat outside cafes. Streets had only light traffic and popular restaurants, including one branch of the TGIFriday’s chain, closed early due to a lack of customers.

SARS has killed 318 people from Beijing to Toronto and sickened more than 4,800 others worldwide. There have been no SARS deaths in the U.S.

During the past week Beijing’s new Mayor Wang Qishan, whose predecessor was dismissed for his handling of the disease, sought to strangle SARS’ spread as the city became the outbreak’s epicenter. It has been the hardest-hit locality, with 56 deaths and 1,114 confirmed cases. Another 1,191 people are suspected of harboring the virus, the Health Ministry said.

(Don Groves in Sydney and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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