After nearly a year of closures, movie theaters in New York City have finally been given the clear to reopen with a 25% capacity limit by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The reopening will take effect March 5.
While theaters in the state outside of the five boroughs and in adjacent states like Connecticut and New Jersey have been allowed to reopen in past months with that limit, cinemas in the country’s biggest market have remained closed out of concern of outbreaks quickly unfolding in what was the first major American epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
But after months of lobbying by the National Association of Theater Owners, NYC theaters will now come into line with the same safety protocols for theaters across New York. This includes mask wearing and assigned seating for all audience members and a capacity limit of either 25% or 50 audience members, whichever is lower. Theaters will also have to comply with air filtration standards to reduce the likelihood of the virus circulating in auditoriums.
AMC Theaters CEO Adam Aron said in a statement that it will reopen all 13 of its NYC locations on March 5, promising to do so with the “highest devotion to the health and safety of our guests and associates”
NEW: Movie theaters in New York City can reopen on March 5 at 25% capacity, with no more than 50 people per screen.
Assigned seating, social distancing and other health precautions will be in place.
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) February 22, 2021
The announcement comes as vaccination efforts have ramped up nationwide and infection and death rates have dropped after a deadly winter. As the U.S. death count passed 500,000, more than 58 million Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine while hospitalizations nationwide have fallen below 60,000 for the first time since Nov. 9.
In response to this, Cuomo and other governors have begun a push to reopen businesses, schools, and places of worship. Recently, Cuomo has also given the green light for amusement parks and sporting arenas — including Madison Square Garden — to reopen with 10-15% capacity limits while increasing the limit for indoor dining to 35%.
The reopening of NYC theaters is just one step in a long road of recovery for the U.S. box office, but it is an important one. Comscore reported that only 38% of movie theaters were open this past weekend, with thousands still closed due to a mix of ongoing COVID-19 closure orders and a lack of major box office titles.
“Theater owners are pleased with the announcement that New York City movie theaters will be allowed to safely re-open,” NATO said in a statement. “Stringent voluntary health and safety protocols have made it possible for cinemas across the country to operate safely and responsibly at higher capacity limits for many months without a single outbreak of COVID-19 being traced to movie theaters. New York City is a major market for moviegoing in the U.S.; re-opening there gives confidence to film distributors in setting and holding their theatrical release dates, and is an important step in the recovery of the entire industry. We look forward to expanding the capacity from 25% to 50% in the very near future so that theatres can operate profitably.”
Searchlight’s “Nomadland,” considered a frontrunner at the Academy Awards, opened this weekend on an estimated 1,200 screens and on streaming via Hulu, a far different release strategy than the traditional four-screen platform opening in New York and Los Angeles that an awards contender would usually receive. The reopening of theaters in major cities will be key to bringing major releases back to wide theatrical release.
Theater owners and studio distribution execs are still clinging to hope that the vaccination process will continue fast enough to allow theaters nationwide to open in some capacity during the lucrative summer blockbuster season. Films have already been moved out of release slots in March and April, but Disney has yet to announce a final decision on the Marvel blockbuster “Black Widow,” which the studio said in an investor call this month is a film they still want to release theatrically on May 7. The March 5 reopening date for NYC theaters coincides with the same day that Disney plans to release “Raya and the Last Dragon” in both theaters and as a premium release for Disney+ subscribers.
The U.S. is on pace to vaccinate more than 120 million Americans by the end of April, and the rate could increase if supply and distribution by vaccine manufacturers improves alongside approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which could provide tens of millions more doses this spring. But Dr. Anthony Fauci has warned in multiple interviews that it may take the entire summer to vaccinate the majority of Americans and that herd immunity against the virus may not be achieved until autumn.
Meanwhile, epidemiologists are urging people to get vaccinated whenever possible and continue practicing social distancing, warning that more infectious variants first found in countries like the U.K. and South Africa could cause another surge. This includes New York, where the first case of the South Africa variant, which is believed to have some resistance against the vaccine, was found in Long Island on Sunday.