NORTHFIELD, N.J. — Like a good movie plot, it all came down to timing. And for Brett Denafo, owner of the Tilton Square Theatre, the timing was looking more and more like now or never.
And so, last Friday, in defiance of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s coronavirus executive orders, Denafo simply opened his movie theater located in Northfield, across the bridge from Margate.
Adhering to CDC guidelines, he says he’s reduced capacity to 25%, spaced out movie times, and instituted multiple sanitizing measures. He declared “intermission over.”
People bought tickets and are now going to the movies, a bargain at $6 a ticket for everything from Trolls to The Invisible Man. On Friday, Northfield Police paid a visit and read him the governor’s executive order, Denafo said, but so far have not fined him. (Police drove by the theater again Wednesday but did not stop.)
“We did. We opened up,” Denafo said in an interview this week. “Honestly, what’s been so frustrating is a lot of small businesses that you talk to, how the governor has treated some people and treated other people. Why is it OK for a Walmart to be open where people are touching stuff and not sanitizing?”
Denafo has had company in his open defiance of the governor’s orders. In Margate, Congo Falls Adventure Golf had reopened even though the governor only on Tuesday lifted restrictions on boardwalk games and amusements (though not amusement parks or arcades).
A Boardwalk balloon dart game had raised its grates in Atlantic City weeks ago, and Sally at the Psychic Shop has been sitting outside her store as well (she might be considered allowable curbside retail at this point).
In Atlantic City, the revered Gilchrist breakfast spot reopened for several days before reverting to takeout. One of their locations is on land controlled by the state’s Green Acres program, which may have made their defiance problematic.
The movie industry is getting nervous. On Tuesday, the AMC movie chain, with theaters in Voorhees and Marlton, announced it would open theaters nationwide in July.
Jerrel Harvey, a spokesperson for Murphy, reiterated that movie theaters are not allowed to be open, despite the governor this week OKing indoor gatherings of up to 50 people and outdoor gatherings of up to 100.
The frustration is palpable and growing at the Jersey Shore and elsewhere in New Jersey, with restaurant owners, who are not allowed any indoor seating, calling the governor names on social media. Outdoor seating begins June 15.
When Murphy marched in a Black Lives Matter protest over the weekend, shoulder to shoulder with other protesters, small-business owners cried hypocrisy. Murphy later exempted First Amendment gatherings from his limitations.
“When he marched in that protest, his credibility on gatherings, what little credibility he had left, went out the window,” said North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello, who has been advocating for Shore businesses to be allowed to more fully operate. “I probably heard more about that than anything.”
Denafo also operates Harbor Square Theatre in Stone Harbor and has spent $4 million renovating the historic Ventnor theater, but has only opened the Tilton Square location. The other locations, which operate under different corporate entities, are tied to liquor licenses he does not want to jeopardize.
Denafo said he obtained a government loan that allowed him to keep his 50 employees on the payroll, but that the money had run out.
“Why is he handcuffing us?” Denafo said. “You’re sitting so far from somebody at the movie theater, it’s ridiculous. In theater number 2, there’s a capacity of 55 people, and we have 15 people.”
He says people have been supportive.
“If they don’t feel safe, stay home,” he said. “There’s been a lot of families there.”
To Gov. Murphy, he says, “You’re out there marching. Half of the people didn’t have masks on. You can’t make your own rules up.”
At the Tilton Square Theatre, which Denafo completely rehabilitated and rescued from its prior owners, and where seats are spacious loungers with about 7½ feet already between rows, he says proper precautions are being taken.
Masks are required everywhere but in your seat, where you can remove them, he said, in order to “enjoy concessions.”
His air-conditioning system includes HEPA filters, a $21,000 filtration system and runs its fans continuously. You can smell the ozone. Denafo says it’s like being on a beach on a windy day.
Seats are assigned and parties are kept far apart. Everything is sanitized between movies, and the movie times are spread out to allow 45 minutes of cleaning.
There’s an outside box office, and employees are wearing masks. Customers are spaced out six feet waiting in line for tickets or concessions, which are behind plexiglass.
Theaters are deep cleaned nightly, and chairs sanitized before and after every movie showing. The marquee urges, “PLEASE WEAR A MASK” next to a listing of show times.
The opening has brought a predictable mixed reaction on social media, with some people alarmed at the open defiance and worried about coronavirus spread. But others cheered them on and went to the movies.
“We believe the ‘intermission’ we’ve undergone can safely be over,” the theater declared on its website. “We’re flashing the lights!”
On Wednesday afternoon, people arrived at the theater with masks (and teddy bears) to see an afternoon showing of The Goonies.
Susan Pettinelli of Egg Harbor Township said she felt the theater had “presented a good rationale for this being a safe place to visit.”
“With other businesses open and demonstrations ongoing, we thought we would come,” she said.
Denafo is not trying to hide his actions. And he says he’s prepared to take the fines, if they come. (Murphy has lately been leaving enforcement of executive order violations more up to individual towns.)