The movie screens are dark at Port Jefferson Cinemas. Twenty miles away in Northport, the stage at John W. Engeman Theater is empty.
Go south on Route 110 to Farmingdale, and the iconic Ferris wheel there is motionless. For the first time in 58 years, Adventureland is closed this summer. Travel west to Levittown, and Laser Bounce is silent. It’s usually full of squealing kids and teenagers, but now sanitizing stations and new filters tasked with keeping disease away stand ready in its deserted arcade and laser tag arena.
Just to the south and west, the seats are empty at Bellmore Movies and the Malverne Cinema, too.
COVID-19 has left a trail of devastation and taken a human toll, first and foremost. But as infection numbers in New York stabilize, and other firms have reopened, some Long Island businesses are still waiting their turn. Six months into their shutdown, there are no state guidelines or timelines for when these businesses – including movie theaters, live entertainment venues and amusement centers – will be allowed to reopen. Their owners say they're ready to go as soon as they get the green light, but some said they don't know how much longer they can hang on.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Tuesday that the state would open up as much as it could while staying at a 1% infection rate. "I have my foot on the gas opening the economy as fast as I can without going over 1 and we’re tiptoeing around the 1%," he said. "So why don’t you open more higher risk businesses? We’re right at the limit."
Spokesman Jack Sterne added, "We appreciate that these business owners want to plan in advance to operate safely and will work with them as that process continues."
Waiting for the governor's call
Cinema owner Phil Solomon has watched enough movies to know what this feels like.
"It’s like where the guy is on death row and he’s waiting on the call from the governor, and that’s where I am right now," he said. "We’re waiting to get the call from the government."
Port Jefferson Cinemas has been open in Port Jefferson Station for 38 years, but Solomon sometimes worries this could be the end – not just for his theater, but for the industry. He has no idea when they’ll be allowed to open, but even when they do, Hollywood isn’t making movies the same way. With theaters closed in two big markets – New York and California – studios have shifted to streaming services. Schedules for new releases continue to shift, with movies being pushed to next year.
"This, right now, is a critical moment because it might be the end of the movie industry as we know it," he said. "We’re like the hamburger store that can’t get any hamburgers, because, just before we were shutting down, there was no product. And that’s the same thing now. … There might be an America without movie theaters for the foreseeable future. Who knows what’s going to happen?"
But this doesn’t mean he’s given up hope. Yes, they’ve added new safety features to the theater, but Solomon made sure they were inviting. They’ve used tempered glass instead of plexiglass and put it in attractive frames. He’s added the required MERV-13 filters, but also revamped the HVAC system so it purifies the air.
People ask him every day when the theater will open, he said.
"When you’ve been isolated now for six months, it would be nice to get out," he said. "Our children [and] senior citizen price is six bucks. Where can you go and get out of your house and have a really nice time for three or so hours for $6? I think people would be screaming to do something like that right now."
Movies or no movies, he and his wife, Rose, will be ready when the call comes, he said. He can’t wait.
"For all intents and purposes, I’m retired," he said. "I’m a 73-year-old guy doing this for 38 years, and now I’m a 73-year-old guy who did it for 38 years just sitting at home."
The 'worst day'
There have been a lot of bad days lately in one of the happiest places on Long Island.
There was the day Adventureland owner Steven Gentile realized they wouldn’t get to open for the spring season. There was Labor Day, usually one of the busiest times of the year, when Gentile was instead greeted by motionless rides and eerie silence. And then there was the worst day of all, Aug. 1, when Gentile had to lay off about 15% of his 25-person staff. Pay cuts happened across the board.
"It was probably the worst day I’ve had to experience in my career," said Gentile, who’s worked at his family-owned Farmingdale business since 1977. "Everybody that works with us in this park, they’re either family members or they’ve worked with us for at least 20 years. They’re not staff members, they’re family members."
Adventureland has been a part of the Long Island landscape since 1962, but it hasn't been open since October. The lost season, along with uncertainty about the future, has left Gentile wondering how long the landmark can survive. Even if they return next March, he worries capacity restrictions will make it hard to keep up financially.
"We’re not getting the direction, the communication or the guidance from the state telling us if and when we’re going to reopen, so we’re keeping ourselves prepared at any given moment," he said.
And every day, Gentile said, he fields calls and messages from people asking if they’re reopening, and even if they’re going to close for good. He hears of people going to nearby New Jersey or Pennsylvania to visit amusement parks there. Gentile said he believes opening this year, even for a few weeks, is imperative in showing people that they can operate safely.
"It’s upsetting to see it on both sides – from a business point of view and a human point of view, to see what people have not been able to enjoy," he said. "You don’t see the Ferris wheel going, the swings are not going, you’re not seeing the lights sparkling on 110. It’s sad. We’ll get through it, given the opportunity. Adventureland will get through it. … But you know what? They have to give us the chance to show Long Island that yes, we can do it."
Expense, exasperation and anxiety
Anne Stampfel has a running catalogue of expenses in her brain – one she can rattle off with grim efficiency.
There’s the $100,000 in property tax she has to pay on her two Nassau-based movie theaters, Bellmore Movies and Showplace and Malverne Cinema, in Bellmore and Malverne. She figures her unemployment insurance will go up, since she’s had to lay off staff, and she owes back rent on the Malverne location, though her landlord has been patient.
And that’s not counting the new air filters, the modifications to her theaters and the PPE she bought for her employees, if they’re allowed to come back.
She took out $107,200 in Paycheck Protection Program loans for their cinemas, which also include one in Queens. The loan money sounds like a lot, "but it will go fast once we are allowed to open," she said. "We have already used the 40% allotted for non-payroll, like rent and utilities."
She said businesses like hers need property tax relief. The governor "can't expect us to keep going paying property taxes with zero income. No one can."
"It’s disheartening," said Stampfel, who owns the theaters with her husband, Henry. "I’m a little exasperated. I’ve petitioned. I’ve sent emails. I’ve had people send emails to the governor. I’ve held a press conference. I don’t know what else to do."
In Malverne, Stampfel has watched as a bowling alley, hairdresser and gym have opened around her in the shopping center where the theater is located. And, along with the mounting bills, she keeps another list in her head. The one of all the small local theaters that have had to shut down for good or are close to it. She hopes hers don’t join the ranks, but she understands it could happen.
"Yeah, I’m concerned," she said. "I don’t want to close but how much can I go? … You didn’t mind a few months. You did the PPP. But six months without even a light at the end of the tunnel? Give me hope."
Feeling threatened by stigma, too
Ryan D’Amico has 107 employees between his Laser Bounce Family Fun Centers in Levittown and Queens. He has two kids, for whom he’s the sole provider. And he also has about $30,000 in HVAC filters, UV filters, thermal screening equipment, industrial chemical foggers and plexiglass, and currently no use for them.
The pressure is adding up.
"It’s been stressful every day," said D’Amico, who also founded the New York Arcade Amusement and Attractions Advocates, which is asking the state to allow businesses like his to open. "I’m trying to figure out my own finances at home when I have no idea when I can open my business."
His locations are dark, and he said he spends time there cleaning and cleaning some more, while worrying about the possible stigma associated with amusement facilities like his.
"People don’t think we’re relevant anymore," he said. "They think we went out of business. It’s unfair. [I’m] 100 percent worried [about closing]. … How do we recover in the next few years when these businesses were the last to open because they [were considered] dirty, unsafe, when that’s clearly not the case?"
The industry, he said, "has been devastated" and even those open around the country aren't bringing in money like they used to. And like the other owners in his shoes, he can name the casualties off the top of his head. He’s also gotten to the point where he doesn’t know what to tell his employees.
"How do I explain to them?" he said. "It’s embarrassing. When are we going to open? ... I don’t know what to tell them."
Theater as a 'vaccine-driven industry'
A little slice of Broadway lies dark in Northport.
The actors at John W. Engeman Theater are recruited from the Broadway pool, managing director Kevin O’Neill explained, and the move to the New York theater scene is almost always a shot at fulfilling a lifelong aspiration.
"There are a lot of actors who have given up on their dreams because they don’t know how long this is going to go on," O’Neill said. "It’s an enormous impact on these people."
It’s things like this that O’Neill thinks about the most. The theater was in a good financial position before the COVID-19 shutdown, he said, and he thinks it can survive, but O’Neill also has no illusions about what it will take. This won’t be about capacity restrictions or plexiglass barriers.
"My feeling is that my industry is going to be a vaccine-driven industry," he said. "How does [a cast] social distance? There’s a lot of hugging, kissing, singing, so our industry checks every negative box that you could for the COVID environment."
The theater moved its full slate of eight shows until next year and its full-time staff of 10 is still on the payroll. O’Neill has hope in a recent bill being pushed forward by Sen. Chuck Schumer called the "Save Our Stages Act" – it would provide live venues with grants of up to $12 million each. He calls it his light at the end of the tunnel.
"We’re in it for the long haul," he said. "It was pretty easy for us to surmise that [theater openings weren’t] happening. If you hear [Gov. Andrew M] Cuomo talking, you don’t hear him talk about Broadway at all … and that’s one of, if not the, largest draw to New York City. It’s not even being discussed."
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