A federal judge has ruled that the state of New Jersey, for now, can keep movie theaters closed at the same time religious services or other indoor gatherings are allowed to proceed.
The case, closely watched in industry circles, has offered a close-up look at one effort by beleaguered theaters to open their doors again after months of shutdowns due to COVID-19.
In a terse ruling (read it HERE), U.S. District Court Judge Brian R. Martinotti on Tuesday denied a temporary restraining order, but scheduled a hearing for August 4 on theaters’ request for a preliminary injunction. Arguments will be heard and briefs will be filed in the weeks leading up to the hearing.
The case had been brought by the National Association of Theatre Owners (and its New Jersey chapter) as well as AMC, Cinemark, Regal and other exhibitors. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Judith Persichilli, the state’s acting health commissioner, are defendants in the case, which centered on the question of whether the temples of cinema should be considered any different from actual temples.
Exhibitors filed suit on July 7, claiming that the continued closure of theaters was “unconstitutional.”
The plaintiffs “have not satisfied the stringent standard for granting this extraordinary relief,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “They had ample opportunities to file a request for a temporary restraining order after the governor’s initial executive order, subsequent modifications thereto, and the filing of this complaint. It is noteworthy that, as plaintiffs file this application, states that initially ordered the re-opening of indoor movie theaters have once again ordered their closure in response to rising COVID-19 infection numbers.”
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 this month. 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.
The theaters filed a brief Monday as a followup to their initial complaint.
“As the nation seeks to recover from a global virus outbreak that has disrupted the normal flow of daily life for most Americans, plaintiffs, movie theater owners in New Jersey, along with the state and national associations of theater owners, have worked proactively to be able to reopen movie theaters in a manner consistent with protecting the public’s health,” exhibitors wrote, noting that political leaders and health officials in 45 of 50 states had deemed their safety precautions to be adequate. “Not so in New Jersey.”
Officials in the state “have not based this discriminatory treatment on any identifiable differences in public health risks, nor do they claim that movie theaters pose a greater health risk than these other venues, some of which present far more difficult challenges to practices such as physical distancing,” the brief added.
Murphy and his co-defendants “have instead based this discriminatory treatment on their naked preference for certain types of speech and blind indifference to the rights and interests of plaintiffs and their patrons,” the exhibitors maintained.
Significant damage has been incurred by the exhibition sector, with 2020 box office by one analyst’s estimate headed for a 70% plunge compared with 2019. Burning cash without any revenue coming in, theater circuits have pinned hopes on a late-summer rescue from Hollywood releases like Tenet and Mulan, but prospects have dimmed amid a nationwide surge in COVID-19 infections.