Lights, camera, potential legislative action.
Lawmakers and business owners on both sides of the political aisle are calling for New York movie theaters to reopen with rallies across the state this week as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Officials gathered at the Aurora Theatre and Popcorn Shop late Thursday morning and Albany’s Madison Theatre on Wednesday to urge Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow indoor theaters to reopen statewide.
“My message is a simple one: This is ridiculous,” Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, said Thursday outside the Aurora Theater.
With the state’s continually declining coronavirus numbers and infection rate, Gallivan said New Yorkers know how to properly socially distance, wear face masks and wash their hands to reduce the spread of the disease.
“We’ve seen our infection rate has stayed consistently lower than any other state in the country — there’s no reason our businesses shouldn’t be open,” Gallivan said. “The industry has a plan in place.
“If the governor doesn’t do it, I’m calling on the legislative leaders to call us together in Albany to take the legislative action to make this happen.”
Movie theaters are next to reopen in the state, Cuomo said Wednesday, after officials allowed bowling alleys to resume business and released guidance for indoor physical fitness centers, or gyms, to reopen Aug. 24.
“Movie theaters, I think, are next,” the governor said during an interview on WAMC late Wednesday afternoon. “They’re congregate. They have a centralized ventilation system. People, by definition, are not moving around. You’re in close proximity to another person for a prolonged period of time. If you are positive and you’re breathing in and out and you’re sitting two seats away from another person, it could be a real problem. But they are a situation that we have to attend to.”
As of Thursday, 42 states in the nation have reopened movie theaters as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. California and New York — the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 moviegoing markets are among the eight states where the movies remain closed to audiences.
About 10,000 theater employees in New York have been furloughed or laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The smaller establishments, such as the Madison or Aurora theaters, serve as anchors in their communities, Bow Tie Cinemas CEO and National Association of Theater Owners President Joseph Masher said, adding moviegoers often visit other local restaurants or shops when seeing a show.
“We certainly hope we will get theaters open soon,” Masher said. “If not, they’re going to close forever.”
The state has been slow to reopen indoor theaters, Cuomo has said, because officials have prioritized resuming the most essential businesses that pose the least risk. The state’s COVID-19 numbers remain at an all-time low since the pandemic began, with 0.74 percent positive COVID-19 diagnostic tests Wednesday — the state’s 13th straight day with a coronavirus infection rate below 1 percent. The state reported 518 New Yorkers with COVID-19 in state hospitals Thursday, which is the lowest since March 16.
“...We’re doing better than any state in the nation right now, God bless New Yorkers – but as I say that, it’s been purely a function of how intelligent we’ve been, and we can’t get cocky here,” the governor added. “You know we’re looking at September. Schools are opening, that’s a Pandora’s box in and of itself. The flu is going to come, that’s going to stress our testing capacity because we’re using all the testing capacity now for COVID.”
Theaters have come up with reopening plans that require patrons to wear masks, remain socially distanced, limit attendance to 50% capacity and stagger showtimes to address the governor’s health and safety concerns.
Zero cases of COVID-19 transmission were traced to moviegoing experiences worldwide, Masher said.
“Theaters can reopen safely — they’ve proved it in the 42 states,” he said. “Movie theaters have opened around the world and there have been zero cases of COVID-19 transmission.”
Masher compared the risk of customers sitting in an indoor restaurant, unmasked, for an average of 90 minutes or two hours, to sitting for the same period in an enclosed theater with better air flow, as most indoor theaters have separate ventilators for each auditorium.
“Very rarely is a theater just one ventilation system,” Masher said, adding theater screening rooms, lobbies and restrooms typically have their own units.
“We agree, air circulation is key,” he said. “Theater patrons are seated ... facing the same direction ... with less contact or cross air flow from other patrons than at a restaurant.”
In July, Gov. Cuomo required New York malls to implement an enhanced filtration system and proper ventilation protocols to reopen. The state mandates malls install filters with a high Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value rating to cleanse the COVID-19 virus particle from the air.
Mall HVAC systems must include filters with a MERV rating between 11 and 13. Masher said indoor theaters would implement the same safety protocols to protect patrons and employees.
State Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Delmar, and Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, both spoke outside the Madison Theatre on Wednesday, expressing concern about the impact prolonged closure of movie theaters on the local economy.
“Safety and compliance is a moving target — that’s why we review it constantly,” Breslin said.
Fahy said reopening movie theaters is critical to preserving their footprint on local communities and New York’s main streets.
“When people go out at night, they’re rarely going just for that movie; they’re often having a bite to eat or drink next door,” Fahy said. “It’s that multiplier effect that is so essential. This is a major industry. This is directly tied to jobs in our local community.”
Many small businesses did not survive the months of closure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan said.
“We had so many gyms that just didn’t make it,” she said. “We have restaurants that just didn’t make it. We don’t want this theater to be a place that just didn’t make it.”
Kevin Parisi, owner of the Madison Theatre, reminisced about the magic of the movies.
“It’s the most amazing thing when ‘Star Wars’ opens and people are silent staring at the screen,” Parisi said. “We believe that is absolutely essential — especially in this day and age with everything going on. We need the ability to get away for a few minutes and laugh a little bit and enjoy entertainment to get them out of their life for a few minutes.”
Parisi remains hopeful that Cuomo will accept the local theater’s plan to safely resume business.
“We look forward to getting back to showing some great movies,” he said.