Major movie theaters in New Jersey have filed a federal lawsuit against the state for its decision to hold back on reopening multiplexes due to lingering concerns about COVID-19.
The National Association of Theatre Owners of New Jersey is leading the complaint (read it in full HERE), with major circuits like AMC, Cinemark and Regal also on board. The suit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.
The Garden State, like New York and Connecticut, has made great strides in combating the virus and has some of the lowest rates of infections in the country — though the rate has increased slightly in recent days. New Jersey has been steadily lifting restrictions, allowing houses of worship, casinos and shopping malls to reopen and permitting outdoor gatherings of up to 500 people.
Gov. Phil Murphy, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, has paused the reopenings of gyms, indoor dining and movie theaters, however, citing the concerns of health officials. “Our multi-stage approach uses science, data, and facts to determine which businesses and activities can reopen according to their risk level and challenges they face to safeguard public health,” Murphy said last week.
Theaters in the state as well as in New York and California are crucial to salvaging some piece of the movie summer. Initially eyeing early July, studios have now shifted major tentpoles like Tenet and Mulan back to August as the U.S. continues to experience major surges in infection in many states.
According to the lawsuit, however, Murphy’s approach unfairly punishes businesses like movie theaters.
The virus is “a serious public health risk,” the complaint acknowledges. Nevertheless, “the government-mandated total closure of movie theatres is neither fair nor reasonable, and is instead a violation of plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, Equal Protection of the laws, Due Process under the law, and is a Taking of property without just compensation.”
Theater owners met with state officials and outlined precautions they plan to take, the suit says. The plaintiffs are seeking a ruling that theaters are on the same footing as other businesses as well as a determination that Murphy and other officials have acted to deprive them of “just compensation.”
The divergent positions on movie theaters reflect a much broader discussion unfolding around the country over efforts to reopen businesses. With the unemployment rate surging and the economy drifting into a recession, community leaders and business executives have been agitating to get permission to reopen. But in states like Georgia, Florida, Arizona and Texas, premature reopenings in the springtime allowed the virus to spread. Places that once had low infection rates are now among the most seriously afflicted by COVID-19.