NORTHFIELD — Tilton Square Theatre reopened its doors to moviegoers Friday, operating with many social distancing measures and cleaning protocols, but in apparent defiance of Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order.
Movie theaters in New Jersey have been closed since March, per the governor’s order, in an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. While the state begins to reopen in a phased approach — outdoor dining is permitted June 15 — there is still no reopening date for theaters and indoor entertainment.
Clint Bunting and Brett Denafo, the theater’s co-owners, said they have kept all of Tilton Square’s employees working throughout the pandemic and have had them deep-cleaning the theater, painting and making small interior improvements.
Bunting said he used 100% of the federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, a small business loan established during the pandemic, for its employees, but the money ran out Thursday.
Bunting said running out of the PPP loan was part of the reason they reopened Friday.
“We think we need to be open,” he said. “We think we deserve to be open. We think we can follow the CDC guidelines as good as Home Depot or better.”
Denafo said theaters can monitor their capacity better than a big box store can.
“We know what seat you’re sitting in, because it’s assigned seating,” he said. “When people leave, we sanitize the seat. Instead of having 20 minutes between movies, we now have 45 minutes between movies. We know exactly where every customer is going.”
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Stickers on the floor in the theater’s lobby remind customers to remain 6 feet apart, hand sanitizing stations were set up at concession stands, ticket kiosks and self-serve beverage fountains, and Plexiglas sneeze guards were installed at the concession stand. Signs at entrances said no one with a fever or symptoms of COVID-19 was permitted into the theater, which will be deep-cleaned every night.
Staff had to wear masks and are asked whether they feel well before reporting to work. They also have their temperatures taken once their shifts start. Customers had to wear masks in the theater but were allowed to take them off once seated for a movie.
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Groups that come together can sit together. With its computer system, tickets will assign seating and can place another group of patrons in seats a safe distance apart, the owners said.
Before reopening, Bunting said he and Denafo spoke to Northfield officials and believed they would come.
“We’re not sure if we’ll get a summons or a fine, but we’re willing to take that risk,” he said.
About 4:30 p.m., a Northfield police officer showed up at the theater and showed the owners the governor’s executive order stating that all movie theaters must remain closed. No warning or fine was given.
But if a summons is given, Bunting said a financial decision will be made to remain open or close.
“Depending what kind of presence we get from the police or from the state and depending on the severity of the fine, we’ll decide if we’ll open tomorrow and the next day and the next day,” he said.
Bunting and Denafo also co-own Harbor Square Theatre in Stone Harbor but decided to only open the Northfield location.
“That theater has a liquor license and it costs us quite a bit of money,” Bunting said of Harbor Square. “We have three or four restaurants that are tied to that same liquor license, and we’re apprehensive to (reopen) that one because we feel our partners in the restaurants, we can’t take that alcohol away from them in case the state came in and suspended or revoked (the license).”
The Northfield location does not have a liquor license.
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The theater is operating at 30% capacity, which means 15 to 25 people in the smaller rooms, and 40 to 60 people in the larger rooms, Denafo said. All movie tickets were $6.
Gianna Malgieri, a 20-year-old from Galloway Township, came to see “The Way Back,” a movie starring Ben Affleck.
“When we saw (the theater’s post) on Facebook and the tickets are only $6, we were like, ‘We gotta go,’” Malgieri said. “We’re definitely excited to come to the theater. We haven’t really done anything besides get takeout food and now go to the beach, but yes, it’s definitely exciting to come out.”
And with the theater’s social distancing measures and cleaning protocols in place, she wasn’t nervous about any health risks, especially because moviegoers had to wear masks until they’re in their seats.
Patrick Topping, of Galloway, brought his 3-year-old son, Lincoln, to watch “Despicable Me.” Lincoln was holding a bag of popcorn and was wearing a mask as his dad filled a beverage cup minutes before taking their seats. It was Lincoln’s first time at the theater.
Topping was “absolutely” happy to go out to the movies.
“It’s something to do, you know?” he said. “I wouldn’t think they would open up if it wasn’t safe.”
And the ticket prices didn’t hurt, he added.
“We’ve been in the house for a long time,” he said. “I’m just happy to be here.”