SoHo Playhouse (Wikimedia Commons)
Twelve small independent New York City theatre owners pushing for a reopening date have been assigned their day in court. On Thursday, November 12, Attorney Jim Mermigis and a group of Off-Broadway theatres and comedy club owners will argue that by allowing small venues with enhanced air filtration systems to open at 25% capacity, countless artists and theater professionals will be able to go back to work – enabling theatres to earn revenue, so they can begin paying rent to landlords also hit hard by the pandemic – a move they say will also provide customers for the thousands of retail stores, restaurants and garages that surround their venues.
When the city shut down on Monday, March 16, small theatres and venues were initially grouped with the restaurants and bars. However, when indoor dining at 25% resumed in New York City on September 30, the reopening of small entertainment venues was never addressed. They are still closed, and an advisor for the Governor has referred to the suit filed by the small businesses on the verge of collapse as “frivolous.”
“Governor Cuomo has led this city through one of its darkest periods,” says Catherine Russell, owner of the Theater Center, and one of the organizers of the suit. “But his office is neglecting small venues. We’ve obviously slipped through the cracks when it comes to re-opening. In some capacity, all industries in New York City have reopened. But Off-Broadway and other small independent entertainment venues have been entirely forgotten. If churches, schools, restaurants, salons, stores, gyms, and yes, even bowling alleys can open, why are the small theatres who have invested in air-sanitizing upgrades, implemented every safety protocol, and have mandates requiring that people are masked the entire time they are in the venue still left without some sort of reopening schedule or tentative reopening date?”
The Theater Center has installed 10 brand new cutting-edge hospital-grade air scrubbers (also used by NASA), providing bi-polar ionization decontamination in its HVAC system, which deactivates any germs in the air. Additionally, they are utilizing MERV13 filters, have set up numerous hand sanitizing stations, and will employ on-site COVID Compliance Officers to ensure that all safety protocols are in place and strictly followed by both staff and patrons.
The Broadway League has indicated that large Broadway houses will not re-open until June 2021. Still, these smaller Off-Broadway and comedy club venues are willing to initially open at 25% capacity, hoping that number will increase as it becomes clear that the safety measures they’ve put in place are keeping their patrons protected and safe.
“When you first learn to ride a bike, you need training wheels to feel safe,” says Russell. “We think of our Off-Broadway venues as the ‘training wheels’ for Broadway audiences next summer.”
Russell hopes that Off-Broadway can serve as a model for the larger venues and Broadway houses as they reopen. She is the owner of the Theater Center in Times Square and along with Michael Sgouros of The Players Theater in Greenwich Village, is leading a growing number of small entertainment venues that have been asked to wait to re-open with no date in sight. Mr. Mermigis recently challenged Andrew Cuomo and New York State to bring indoor dining and gyms back to NYC, which has helped thousands return to work and signal some return to normalcy in a city that’s now deemed one of the safest in the country.