Movies — drive-in ones, at least — return to NJ in May
The Delsea Drive-In and other "pop up" theaters got the green light Wednesday to begin reopening, with the first screenings happening as early as next week.
Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday lifted some of his restrictions that had closed non-essential businesses in March in response to the pandemic.
Murphy said that gatherings of vehicles, such as drive-in movies or church services, would no longer be a violation of the executive order as long as social distancing guidelines are in place.
"Participants must remain in cars and if vehicles are closer than 6 feet apart all windows, sunroofs, convertible tops must remain closed except for safety purposes," Murphy said on Twitter.
People organizing the vehicle gatherings must follow social distancing and wear cloth face coverings when they are not in vehicles. Contactless payment must be an option.
The announcement was welcome news for Jude DeLeonardises, who co-owns the Delsea Drive-In with her husband. They had been worried about opening early enough to make enough to make the mortgage this summer.
"Right now it's a thousand percent stress just taking care of business," she said Wednesday. "We're going to put something out on the 22nd come hell or high water whether it's one screen, two screens. I don't know. We're putting something out on the 22nd, we're making something happen."
The Delsea Drive-In's two screens were ready to open in March before Murphy's order prohibiting non-essential travel and gatherings.
DeLeonardises ticked off a list of things that has to happen between now and the first night, including checking to make sure the facility is in compliance with social distancing and the staff is trained on their new payment system.
"It has to be this way for now. We just have to do what we have to do and I want to deliver that product on screen for these folks to come out through the evening at a reasonable cost and have their time with their kids away from the reality of the everyday crap we have to put up with," DeLeonardises said.
The theater has a capacity of 375 vehicles on one screen and 220 on another. Murphy did not place a cap on how many vehicles can be at the theater but DeLeonardises will limit capacity on her own.
"But we don't want that sort of situation to open with because there's a learning curve to all of this for all of us," DeLeonardises said.
The decision also means Ocean Township in Monmouth County can move forward with its planned free drive-in theater at the bandshell in Joe Palaia Park, according to Mayor Chris Siciliano, who said he got a call from the governor's office ahead of the announcement.
"Now we can plan full steam ahead. Our new date is Thursday, May 28, with a secondary date of Sunday, May 31," Siciliano said.
Up to 75 cars parked 10 feet apart will be permitted at each screening.
"Bring your own food, bring your own beverages, drinks for the kids and snacks all that. You stay in your car and listen to the radio," Siciliano said.
Siciliano believes that one of the teams Murphy put together to help bring the state back to normal was a factor in allowing drive-ins.
"You need a team, you need an army to help you say, 'Hey, this category is safe, here's how you do the special services'. I think he got a cue from his team that the drive-in is a very safe proposition," he said.
Siciliano said he's going to put five or six movies up for a vote in a poll on his Facebook page starting Thursday night to pick the first movie.
DeLeonardises thanked a long list of people for helping convince Murphy to get the drive-in open, including U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J. 2nd District, state Sen. Michael Testa, R- Cape May, Cranford Theatre owner Doreen Sayegh, Garden State Film Festival Executive Director Lauren Concar Sheehy and N.J. Motion Picture & Television Commission Chairman Michael Uslan.
"All of those entities had a hand in helping the governor come to his senses at this time to allow this to happen because he was defying logic and it had to stop," DeLeonardises said.
Testa said this decision should have been made four weeks ago and is just a drop in the bucket compared to other small businesses struggling under the executive orders.
"It's time for the governor to get out of the way and allow the market to respond and adapt to the pandemic threat in safe and responsible ways that prioritizes the health of both the business and valued customers," Testa said in a written statement.