Movie theaters seek re-opening guidance from state

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It’s a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry build on escapism — something a lot of people could use this summer.

However, thousands of New York’s indoor movie screens have been shuttered since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March — and that’s getting old, if you run a theater and have no revenue coming in.

Statewide, about 350 movie-showing locations shut down and 10,000 movie theater employees are without jobs. For Hollywood, it means a backlog of potential blockbuster movies such as “Mulan” and “A Quiet Place Part 2” either getting sent directly to streaming services, or having their release postponed until things get better.

“The state of this industry is that we are dying because we can’t get open,” said Joe Masher, chief operating officer of Bow Tie Cinemas and president of the National Association of Theater Owners of New York State.

Masher spoke Saturday at the Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland 6 in downtown Schenectady, one of the city’s anchor attractions since it opened in 2007. He not only outlined safety protocols theaters are ready to put in place, but also urged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to provide some guidance on when movie houses might re-open.

“We’re asking the governor’s office when we can get an answer,” Masher said. “We have no indication from New York state what’s going on.”

The call to reopen popular entertainment venues came a day after Cuomo announced that bowling alleys can open with restrictions, and that guidance for re-opening indoor gyms will come on Monday.

Bowling alleys, gyms, casinos and theaters have been among the handful of businesses still not allowed to re-open, after much of the state’s economy was shuttered in March to halt spread of the novel corona-virus that causes COVID-19. Since then, business, retail, restaurants and malls have been allowed to re-open, often with capacity limits or new sanitation protocols.

“We feel we’re on the same par as a bowling alley, a gym, a restaurant,” Masher said.

A Cuomo spokesman, Jason Conwall, said Saturday that New York has successfully curbed COVID infections in a way that other states haven’t, and other states — like California — have had to backtrack from re-openings after businesses were re-opened but COVID-19 rates climbed.

“Every public opinion survey has shown an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers support our re-opening approach,” Con-wall said in an email. “Our number one priority remains protecting the health of New Yorkers — and we are continuing to look at the issue and are in discussions with the industry about appropriate safety protocols.”

While movie theaters across the nation have been closed at times since March, they are currently allowed to operate in 42 states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut. California opened movie theaters, but then closed them again when COVID cases rose.

New York and New Jersey are among the states where indoor theaters are currently shut down. New York drive-in movie theaters have been allowed to re-open.

Bow Tie, which is headquartered in Ridgefield, Connecticut, operates about 30 theaters in six states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. In addition to the Schenectady location, its Capital Region holdings include the downtown Saratoga Springs Criterion Cinemas and the Wilton Mall movie complex.

Masher, a Troy native, said safety procedures Bow Tie will put in place include blocking off every other row, and leaving usually two seats empty between parties in the occupied rows. Patrons could be required to wear masks, based on state or local rules, he said.

There would be social distancing floor markers, new plexiglass at concession counters, and patrons will be encouraged to buy tickets and concessions online — it would be possible for someone to buy a ticket, pick up popcorn and a soda and enter the theater without having any direct contact with an employee.

There will also be longer gaps of time between screenings, to allow for sanitary cleaning of each theater after each screening.

Masher said theaters use MERV-10 or higher air filters in their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, which should filter out any virus particles in the air. “HVAC experts say it’s not likely the virus could get through and spread that way,” he said.

“We know we can re-open safely, because we’ve done it in other states,” Masher said.

Masher acknowledged that small, independent movie theaters are extremely at risk from the five-month shutdown. Some have taken creative measures to generate a little revenue — like the local Scotia Cinema, which has begun selling movie popcorn to the public, even though it can’t show movies.

Masher said 25 to 30 people — most of them part-time high school students or retirees — work at each of Bow Tie’s three Capital Region locations.

Reach staff writer Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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