A group of eight small theaters and comedy clubs in New York City has filed a lawsuit challenging the closing of their venues during the coronavirus pandemic.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in Federal District Court in Manhattan, argues that the orders shutting down theaters “shock the conscience and interfere with plaintiffs’ deeply-rooted liberty and property rights, including the right to work, right to contract, and right to engage in commerce.”
The theaters filing suit include the Theater Center, the Players Theater, Actors Temple Theater, SoHo Playhouse, the Gene Frankel Theater, the Triad, Broadway Comedy Club and New York Comedy Club, all of which are in Manhattan and have 199 seats or fewer, and most of which are commercial operations. They sued Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
In the lawsuit, the theaters argue that pandemic restrictions have been enforced arbitrarily, noting that bowling alleys, casinos, catering halls, gyms and shopping malls have been allowed to reopen, as have schools, colleges and “Saturday Night Live.” They ask a court to overturn the executive orders barring theaters from holding performances.
The lawsuit was put together by Catherine Russell, an actor who is the general manager of the Theater Center, which has already installed an improved air filtration system in hopes of reopening to masked, socially distanced, temperature-tested audiences. She said she was inspired by reading about the production of “Godspell” at the Berkshire Theater Group and decided to pull together a group of theaters to press for an easing of restrictions in New York.
“Small theaters are much more capable of doing this safely, and if people walk into our theaters and feel safe and protected, they’ll be more likely to see ‘Hamilton’ or ‘Six’ next summer,” Russell said in an interview. “Also, people need to go back to work. We were closed with restaurants and bars, but they’ve been open for a while, and it’s actually safer to be in a theater because you keep your mask on.”
Some of the venues present their own programming and some rent their spaces to other producers; at the time of the shutdown the Theater Center had a long running production of “Perfect Crime,” starring Russell, as well as “The Office! A Musical Parody.”
One-person shows are typical fare at the SoHo Playhouse, including Phoebe Waller-Bridge in “Fleabag” in 2019 and Drew Droege in “Happy Birthday Doug,” which had its run cut short this spring by the pandemic.
Other businesses and organizations have tried to challenge New York’s pandemic protocols, including the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, bars, restaurants, gyms and strip clubs. In several of the cases, the plaintiffs were represented by James G. Mermigis, the lawyer who is now representing the theaters.
“We get sued virtually every day for virtually every action taken during this pandemic, and frankly I’ve lost track of all the frivolous suits filed against us,” said Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor. “We are moving heaven and earth to contain this virus and we know some people are unhappy, but New York continues to have one of the lowest infection rates in the nation, and better to be unhappy than sick or worse.”