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Cuomo lets cinemas reopen, with rules

The State Theater in Tupper Lake has been closed since March. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

If all your dreams seem to take place in movie theaters, punctuated by trailers and the sound of crunching popcorn, there’s finally some good news. On Saturday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that movie theaters outside of New York City can reopen on Friday.

Unsurprisingly, there are caveats about which ones can open. Theaters must be in counties that have COVID-19 positivity rates of less than 2% on a 14-day average, and don’t have any “cluster zones.” Theaters must enforce a 25% capacity, and no more than 50 people can gather in front of each screen.

The news comes as a new record high of COVID-19 tests were reported in the state.

“We hit 160,000 tests in one day, which is a record number and the highest we’ve ever done,” said Cuomo in a news conference. “When you’re doing that level of tests, you get down to the block level. And then, when you start to see a cluster, you oversample in that cluster, so you get even more data.”

With more information came more rules.

Masks are required at all times, except when seated and eating or drinking. Assigned seating will be required. Social distancing between parties will be required. Theaters will be required to have additional staff to ensure compliance with the guidelines. And enhanced air filtration, ventilation and purification standards will also be required.

“Cuomo pretty much skipped over the slides about cinemas during his live conference,” said Heather Clark, whose family owns the Palace Theatre in Lake Placid. “We’re waiting for the air filtration info. Everything else we have covered.”

The Palace opened in 1926, and Clark’s grandparents bought it in 1961. The doors of the four-screen movie house have been closed since March, the only sign of life being the lit-up marquee.

“We need to know the state protocols first,” said Clark, who said that if the new rules require expensive upgrades, the Palace wouldn’t be able to open. “If we can open, what about the other stuff? We’ve lost half of our staff. We’ve been closed for seven months. It’s like we’re starting from scratch.”

“I would love to open again,” said Sally Strasser, who has owned the State Theater in Tupper Lake since 2004. But she, too, is waiting for air system guidelines.

“It’s an old building,” she said. “So now what?” Strasser’s building dates to 1914 and doesn’t have central heating. She’s also worried about the winter flu season and the current spike in virus numbers worldwide. And then there’s the problem of the movies themselves, as very few new titles have been released.

“There’s the grandpa movie,” she said about “The War With Grandpa,” which came out in early October. “There’s ‘Tenet,’ which is a hundred years old.” It was supposed to be a summer blockbuster.

As of Oct. 16, 48 states had opened indoor cinemas. Many major films have been delayed because of the pandemic, as theaters have only gradually reopened and the major movie centers of New York City and Los Angeles have remained closed to movie-goers.

Since the pandemic, over 10,000 theater employees have been laid off or furloughed across the state, according to the Albany Business Review. In early October, the Regal movie chain closed, shuttering 536 locations — and over 7,000 screens — as a direct result of the pandemic. The move came after the latest James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” was pushed back, again, until 2021.

On Oct. 14, the executive committee of the Global Cinema Federation wrote an open letter to Cuomo asking him to consider allowing New York theaters to open on a county-by-county basis. The letter was signed by leaders from AMC, Cinemark, Cineplex, Cineworld and other large chains.

After Cuomo’s press conference, the committee released a follow-up statement thanking the governor. “We look forward to seeing moviegoers return to the big screen here in the Empire State next week,” the committee said.

“We shall see,” said Strasser.

“First we see if we can even open,” said Clark. “Then we have to see what our community wants.”

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