A cohort of New York’s art-house movie theaters has banded together to petition Governor Andrew Cuomo for the guidelines needed to begin their reopening process.
While nearly every other major industry has received health metrics and been allowed to reopen for business as these goals were met, movie theaters — considered non-essential high-risk entertainment environments due to indoor seating capacity and proximity — remain shuttered across the state. Now, smaller art-house cinemas are acting together to see if that can change, at least in part.
“We need the roadmap that will allow us to appropriately prepare our community spaces for safe operations in a post-COVID world. New York is one of the last states in the union with no published guidelines for safely reopening cinemas, and we’re prepared to assist in the crafting of standards that fit our unique subset of the film exhibition sector,” reads the statement released jointly by 16 separate small theaters throughout the state, including three of them in Westchester County: The Bedford Playhouse, the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, and The Picture House in Pelham.
The letter does not demand an immediate reopening of the whole theater industry, but rather seeks to be included in the conversation about how cinemas may begin the process. Moreover, it specifically asks for separate guidelines that can be used by smaller independent theaters — those that typically operate as nonprofits and screen and are deeply ingrained in their local communities, typically screening classics, foreign films, and other “artsy” works.
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“New York’s art houses are essential. We bring art – the art of film – to communities, provide arts education to children and adults, bolster our local economies, and act as vital community hubs – especially essential in these times,” says The Picture House Executive Director Laura deBuys. “We fully support and appreciate Governor Cuomo’s efforts to keep New York’s reopening safe. We are simply asking for guidelines and a timeline for our reopening so that we can prepare to provide the safest possible experience for our patrons.”
All theaters on the list have agreed to proactively follow CinemaSafe health and cleanliness guidelines, hoping to make the return to service as quick as possible once approved.
“Bedford Playhouse is ready to welcome guests back safely to the theater as soon as Governor Cuomo gives us the green light,” says Executive Director Michael Hoagland. “We have implemented NATO’s (National Association of Theatre Owners) CinemaSafe guidelines which include enhanced cleaning protocols and strict social distancing measures. We know the arts bring people together and look forward to opening our doors to the community once again soon.”
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The open letter proposes that small theaters like the signatories often have smaller seating capacities by square footage than many religious gatherings (which can operate currently at 33% capacity), museums (which are open at 25% capacity), and even many larger restaurants (which have been allowed to open at 50% capacity).
“Our position — and the position of the other art house theaters who have petitioned the State — is to forgo sales of food and beverages at concessions, to help ensure that masks will be worn through the entire experience, thus adding to the safety for the public,” says Interim Executive Director of the JBFC Margo Amgott.
Though all of the Westchester theaters — and many others — have added virtual programming to entertain their communities and keep the coffers full, so to speak, the economic impact of their continued closure can be felt beyond their own doors.
“Without the ability to release films in the all-important New York market, these businesses [independent film production and distribution] have stalled,” the letter argues, adding, “As a consistent, nightly entertainment option, art house cinemas provide an immense multiplier of economic impact to the localities they serve. Attractions like ours will be a crucial component to the economic recovery of downtowns across the state.”