A federal judge on Tuesday tossed out efforts by the nation’s large movie theater chains to force open their establishments in New Jersey, which have been closed for months as part of a set of sweeping closures meant to stamp out the spread of COVID-19.
U.S. District Judge Brian Martinotti ruled that the closure that Gov. Phil Murphy first ordered back in March did not mark a violation of First Amendment liberties. Among those theaters were Regal Cinemas, Bow Tie Cinemas, Community Theaters and Cinemark USA.
That marks a blow for the National Association of Theatres, which filed the suit on behalf of several major chains. Their injunction would have stopped the Murphy administration from “applying or enforcing” the mandated theater closure.
“In closing indoor movie theater operations,” New Jersey is “promoting the significant governmental interest of protecting public health by keeping closed areas that present heightened risks for COVID-19 transmission,” wrote Martinotti in his 33-page opinion.
The theaters argued that religious institutions were granted the right to hold religious gatherings, and that the plaintiffs have been denied those rights because of Murphy’s order. And that theater operators could enact strict social distancing measures, limit ticket sales, install plexiglass at service areas, and adopt contactless check-ins.
But the judge did not agree, saying that the risk of transmission would increase “with prolonged person-to-person interactions.”
Theaters, Martinotti added, “necessitate a large number of individuals congregating together concurrently in one indoor location for an unusually long period of time.”
The reopening of theaters, gyms and indoor dining has for weeks been held off. Indoor dining was initially set to resume on July 2, but Murphy pulled the plug on those plans, saying it had contributed to COVID-19 rebounds across the nation.
With the state seeing a slow rebound of the virus – marked by a faster rate of spread – and fears of a second wave come the fall, theaters closures could drag on indefinitely.