Movie theaters on Long Island can open Friday, as long as they limit attendance to 25%, have no more than 50 people per viewing screen and have enhanced ventilation systems, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Saturday.
In addition, people must wear masks at all times at the movies, except when seated while eating or drinking, Cuomo said.
Cuomo said movie theaters may open so long as the infection rate of the county they are in has remained below 2% for 14 days and has no cluster zones. The announcement does not allow movie theaters to open in New York City, he said.
The announcement came as welcome news for a film industry that has slowed to a near-standstill due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cinemas nationwide shut their doors in mid-March, which in turn caused Hollywood to postpone many of their biggest releases until next year.
States/regions in red are included on New York's travel advisory list as of Oct. 27, 2020. Guam and Puerto Rico, not pictured, are also on the list.
Theater owners said they are confident they can meet the state's requirements but worried about being able to book films for showing. They said they first need to check with studios and film distributors that films will be available.
"It's our goal to open as soon as we can, if there are movies to show," said Brian Fiederlein, manager of PJ Cinemas, a facility that has seven screens in Port Jefferson.
He said the owner has been preparing the theater for reopening, including installing special air filters in the ventilation system.
The months without business have been a stress on the theater, he added, though it was fortunate to have been selected to receive money from the federal Payroll Protection Program, which allowed it to continue the salaries of its 25 employees.
It remains unclear whether all theaters will choose to reopen.
Regal, the second-largest theater chain in the United States, said this month it suspended operations at all 536 of its locations. The chain’s Long Island sites include Ronkonkoma, Farmingdale, Westbury and a newly built venue in Lynbrook.
Joseph Masher, president of the National Association of Theater Owners of New York, said film companies have said they will not release a blockbuster movie until the theaters open in the major markets of New York City and Los Angeles.
Still, he welcomed the announcement.
"We are exceptionally excited and thankful to the governor," Masher said. "We're looking forward to serving our patrons safely."
Masher said he's confident that the great majority of theaters will meet the state's criteria for reopening.
In those that can open, people must wear masks at all times except when they're seated while eating or drinking. Assigned seating will be required, and social distancing must be followed at all times. Theater staff will be tasked with controlling seating, occupancy and traffic.
Theaters also will be required to meet enhanced air filtration, ventilation and purification standards, the state said.
The theater industry on Long Island has been devastated by the months of inactivity, Masher said. "It's been horrific," he said. Many of the state's 10,000 theater employees have been laid off or furloughed, he said.
Marc Stein, general manager of the Bellmore Movies, said the single-screen theater has been cleaned and set up for the limited-size audience. The challenge now, he said, is finding independent movies to show. The 100-plus-year-old theater is known for them.
"Come to the movies. Don't be afraid," he said. "We're safe."
Cuomo also spoke about the state's "microcluster strategy" in fighting the virus, saying that the amount of testing has been so widespread and targeted that officials can trace outbreaks to a block-by-block level. These clusters continue in Queens, Brooklyn, Orange and Rockland counties, he said.
"If you have a cluster, there is a lack of compliance" with wearing masks and social distancing, he said. "If people are following the rules, the virus is not spreading."
Cuomo on Saturday specifically pointed to a Sweet 16 party that took place Sept. 25 at The Miller Place Inn on Long Island, after which 37 people tested positive for COVID-19. The party had 81 guests, exceeding the state maximum of 50, officials said, noting not all attendees were wearing masks. The venue has since been fined $12,000.
The governor said mitigation efforts in cluster areas are working. He noted that a red area in Brooklyn with a 6.6% infection rate from Sept. 27 through Oct. 3 had a rate of 4.9% Friday.
The state's overall infection rate was 1.1% Friday. The cluster areas had a rate of 4.34%, and the rate for areas outside the clusters was 1.02%, he said.
The state had nine deaths related to coronavirus Friday, including one in Suffolk, he said.
A total of 159,972 test results were reported to the state Friday, a record high, the governor said.
The picture on LI
Long Island had a positivity rate of 1.0% Friday, essentially remaining stable. Nassau had 117 new cases for a total of 48,494, and Suffolk had 126 new cases for a total of 47,941, according to state figures.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran praised the performance of her county. Nassau’s hospitals have 61 COVID-19 patients with 14 in ICUs and seven patients on ventilators, she said.
"We have been able to hold the positivity rate around 1% for this long because residents are doing the right thing," Curran said. "Our hard work continues to pay off as movie theaters have been given the green light to reopen in Nassau. I have toured movie theaters small and large across the county and I am confident that their smart modifications along with the state’s guidance will allow them to safely invite residents back."
In Suffolk, a total of 1.0% of those tested were positive for COVID-19.
On Friday, the East Meadow School District said a student on remote instruction at Meadowbrook Elementary School tested positive for COVID-19. The student has been on remote instruction since the start of the school year, officials said.
Planning for a vaccine
Cuomo also talked about the challenges of distributing a vaccine once it is made available. He said the vaccine, "depending on who you listen to and then depending on who you believe, should become available in December or the winter." He said New York would have a task force review the vaccine before he recommends that people take it.
He also said there needs to be a national strategy on distributing the vaccine, since it's too large a task to just leave to the states. The National Governors Association has sent a letter asking the federal government to spell out a plan, he said.
"Frankly, if the federal government doesn't do anything, we'll figure it out here in New York like we figured it out for the past seven months," Cuomo said.
With Alexa Coveney