What happened

Movie theater stocks fell on Thursday, as multiple U.S. states and international markets reported rapidly rising COVID-19 case counts.

As of 1:41 p.m. EDT, shares of AMC Entertainment (NYSE:AMC), Cinemark Holdings (NYSE:CNK), and National CineMedia (NASDAQ:NCMI) were down 13%, 12%, and 11%, respectively.

So what

At least a dozen U.S. states and parts of many other countries are dealing with record numbers of new COVID-19 cases. The situation threatens to force health and government officials to slow reopening plans, which could stifle a much-needed economic recovery that has only just begun.

Empty seats in a movie theater.

Movie theater stocks fell sharply on Thursday, as concerns that their theaters will remain empty mount. Image source: Getty Images.

Fears of becoming infected with the novel coronavirus could also keep people out of movie theaters, many of which are planning to reopen in the coming weeks. AMC Entertainment and other theater chains have warned that if they don't reopen soon, they might not be able to remain in business. However, even if they do open their theaters to patrons, it remains uncertain if enough people will risk getting sick to go to the movies, rather than simply watching shows in the comfort and relative safety of their own home.

Now what 

While companies such as Netflix clearly stand to benefit from a coronavirus-driven acceleration in the stay-at-home trend, movie theaters could be one of the hardest-hit industries during the COVID-19 crisis. That makes AMC Entertainment, Cinemark Holdings, and National CineMedia particularly risky investments during the pandemic.