uA federal judge Tuesday upheld New Jersey Governor Philip Murphy’s closure of movie theaters in the state, dismissing a motion for an injunction by the National Association of Theatre Owners and five cinema chains that would have allowed them to open their doors.
Judge Brian Martinotti ruled that the state is not infringing on the theaters First Amendment rights to free speech in enforcing its pandemic-related closure. Theaters had tried to make a case for discrimination since New Jersey allowed churches to open but not movie theaters.
Theaters in adjacent New York are also up in arms as they remain closed even as Governor Andrew Cuomo opens other venues like bowling alleys and gyms.
The 33-page opinion outlined the state’s emergency declaration, COVID-19 response and current phased reopening plans that consider indoor performance entertainment venues riskier than others with people gathering at one place for a prolonged period.
Theaters find that unfair. Movie chains had met with Governor with their list of safety protocols for safe reopening that they believe are more “health protective” than other indoor activities which are permitted. The judge listed them and noted Governor Murphy had lowered the public gathering limit during the recent coronavirus surge from 100 people to 50, but exempted “religious services or celebrations, political activities, wedding ceremonies, funerals, and memorial services.”
But, citing case law, noted that preliminary injunctions are “extraordinary remedies, which should be granted only in limited circumstance” and that theaters did not meet the bar.
The “Court finds Defendants’ measures—even if they are not the least restrictive means—to be narrowly tailored to the goal of preventing the spread of COVID-19,” the ruling said. “Defendants have satisfied their burden in demonstrating [the closure order] is a content-neutral regulation that passes muster under intermediate scrutiny. Accordingly, Plaintiffs have not established a reasonable probability of success on the merits for their First Amendment or New Jersey Constitution Article I, claims.”
The case has offered a close-up look at the effort by beleaguered theaters to restart business again after months of shutdowns due to COVID-19.
In July, the judge denied a temporary restraining order but had agreed to hear arguments on theaters’ request for a preliminary injunction.
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