ITHACA, N.Y. — Independent movie theaters across New York State, including Cinemapolis in downtown Ithaca, are joining together to demand that the state government allow them to reopen after nearly six months of closure since the coronavirus pandemic forced a statewide shutdown in March.

Movie theaters had initially been ready to open along with other Phase 4 businesses, which were allowed to reopen with decreased density, social distancing and mask requirements in mid-July. Theaters, though, along with several other businesses were pulled from the list and told they had to remain closed. Other excluded businesses, according to a press release, have been allowed to reopen in the time since then but theaters have still been in a holding pattern.

In total, 16 theaters from Brooklyn to Rochester are signed on to the letter.

“We are prepared to re-open in a manner that mitigates risk and promotes a safe movie-going experience for staff and patrons alike,” said Brett Bossard, executive director of Cinemapolis. “For hundreds of thousands of devoted patrons, New York’s community-based, mission-driven movie theaters are absolutely essential to their mental health and well-being.”

Cinemapolis has continued to pay its employees for their hours since it closed, with funding sustained by member support and grants. The theater has also continued to provide movie offerings in some capacity, starting a virtual streaming rotation of movies over the summer.

At this point, Bossard said the theater directors are simply waiting for some more guidance from the state, though the petition has picked up some momentum with the press. He guesses even when official guidelines do emerge for a reopening, it will take some time for theaters to prepare their spaces—as Cinemapolis is doing right now, with renovations underway to equip the building with touch-less bathroom fixtures.

Hamilton Theater, in Hamilton, NY, is also a signatory on the petition. The theater’s general manager, Sean Nevison, said they have implemented extensive safety protocols, helped by a fortuitous but costly renovation last summer that included an enhanced HVAC system that meets the state’s requirements for reopening. All of that reinforces the frustration he feels by being left out of the reopening process to this point. Though smaller than Ithaca, Hamilton is a college town as well, as it houses Colgate University and its student population. Colgate’s students have returned, sold to the community as a boon to the local economy—but if a business is unable to open, how can it benefit from their presence?

“The employees were excited to come back for their jobs,” Nevison said. “Yeah, you’re inside for a few hours, but our safety protocol was on point. We feel like we should get a shot, if people don’t feel comfortable coming to the movies we’re not going to force anybody to. […] I understand that it’s a global pandemic, but as the months get colder here, there’s going to be less and less to do outdoors, which is frustrating in its own right.”

Bossard, in Ithaca, echoed the sentiment. Summer and spring are normally down times for Cinemapolis anyway, but normally autumn brings larger crowds, along with the added influx of student interest.

“Our softest time of the year, ticket-wise, is normally March through August,” he said. “We’re heading into what would be our busiest time of the year. […] Typically, late September into the post-holiday season is when we have traditionally been at our highest attendance.”

The crux of Nevison’s frustration is that the small, independent theaters are being treated in the exact way that larger, high-capacity movie theaters are. This is logically misguided, Nevison said, as local theaters typically have a much smaller capacity and fewer screens than something like a Regal or AMC theater; Hamilton’s theater has just three screens, and its modified reopening plan would have included just one screen playing movies while the other two sat empty.

“We feel misrepresented,” Nevison said. “We put together all our safety plans, we had an opening date, and then we were just brushed aside and lumped in with the giant megaplexes. We’re just a small theater in Hamilton, New York.”

A nationwide group of theater owner‘s guidelines include a wide range of rules for theaters, including hand-washing mandates, mask and social distancing sections, air filtration regulations, additional employee health training and modified concession stand conduct. With those in mind, the group’s letter to the state argues that they are being unduly targeted while other businesses that offer similar experiences are allowed to open with limitations in place. Each theater signing on to the petition has agreed to follow those CinemaSafe regulations.

“While it’s true that cinemas are a congregant space, small art houses like ours present no more of a risk than religious gatherings, which are now allowed at 33 percent capacity, or museums, which can operate at 25 percent capacity,” the letter states. “Given that in many regions of the state, large restaurants are able to seat at 50% capacity, they’re also presenting a much higher risk than our small auditoriums at 50% capacity, with masked patrons.  If those other sectors are deemed a low enough risk, there’s simply no way that an art house cinema presents even a portion of the risk that they present.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com