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Charlotte bars, movie theaters set to reopen Friday after 'really painful' COVID-19 shutdown

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 10/1/2020 By Catherine Muccigrosso and Joe Marusak, The Charlotte Observer

After more than six months of forced COVID-19 closures, bars, music venues and theaters in Charlotte and across the state can reopen at 5 p.m. Friday — but some limitations apply.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday afternoon announced the state will move into Phase 3 of reopening businesses that have been closed since mid-March, when a statewide stay-at-home order went into effect due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The order affecting Phase 3 transition requires bars and other venues to enforce social distancing among customers and North Carolina’s mask mandate in public spaces remains in place for adults and children older than 5.

Small outdoor venues, movie theaters and conference centers may open at 30% capacity or 100 seats, whichever is less, Cooper said. Bars may open at the same capacity but for outdoor seating only. Gathering limits remain at no more than 25 people indoors and 50 outdoors.

Indoor entertainment businesses, such as a music club or lounge, may reopen but with reduced capacity.

The 11 p.m. curfew for alcohol sales at restaurants and bars also will continue. Outdoor amusement parks are also cleared to begin reopening with some restrictions in place.

“We’re encouraged to see North Carolina holding steady and because of our stability we’re taking another careful step forward,” Cooper said. “Our economy can fully rebuild when we are safe and people have confidence they can stay healthy. Every careful step we make and time we wear a mask and keep our distance, we are helping to keep this disease at bay and build a stronger North Carolina.”

The order is effective through 5 p.m. Oct 23.

Even as Cooper announced the new phase, state health official Dr. Mandy Cohen said “We all need to be working hard to prevent viral spread. Our progress is fragile. Get behind the mask.”

Earlier this week state health officials said nursing homes may allow visitors if the facility is in a county with a COVID-19 positivity rate of less than 10% and if the facility has no new case reported for 14 days.

Cooper last week announced large outdoor venues like Carolina Panthers and Lowes Motor Speedway would be allowed to open at 7% capacity beginning at 5 p.m. Friday. That clears the way for around 5,200 fans to attend Sunday’s home game against the Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium.

Movie Theaters

Carolina Cinema Mall in Concord is ready to open Friday, said general manager Bryan Smith. He said the tentative features include “Tenet,” “New Mutants,” “Unhinged” and “Infidel.”

Smith started a pop-up drive-in movie theater in the parking lot in July that’s seen up to 200 cars on a weekend night. He said that will continue through at least next month with “The Conjuring” this weekend and “Scream” next weekend.

“We’ll be happy to have the inside open,” he said.

Smith said masks will be required other than for eating and drinking. The theater has installed Plexiglas at registers to create a barrier between workers and customers. The location, Smith said, will also prop doors open for a more touch-free process and movie tickets can be ordered online.

Southeast Cinemas, which owns the eight-screen Concord theater, reopened theaters in Tennessee, South Carolina and Virginia, according to the company website.

Theater safety practices also include cleaning chairs, armrests, handrails, door handles and cup holders between movies. Guests are asked to keep six feet social distancing between groups.

“We really feel that movie theaters are a safe environment for customers,” Smith said. “There’s been no signs of outbreaks from movie theaters.”

Cinemark Movie Bistro Charlotte on Monroe Road will reopen Oct. 9, the company said in a email to the Observer. The five other Cinemark theaters in North Carolina, including one in Salisbury, also will reopen next week.

The movie lineup includes “Tenet” by Christopher Nolan, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” and “The Broken Hearts Gallery.”

Cinemark has reopened about 75% of its U.S. theaters following COVID-19 safety measures including extra cleanings and sanitizing, contactless payment and Plexiglas at registers, according to the company.

Theaters will have staggered show times and seats will be blocked by groups to help with social distancing. Customers may only remove face masks while eating and drinking in their seats, according to the company.

Charlotte-based theater chain Stone Theatres isn’t likely to reopen its four North Carolina theaters right away.

In August, Stone Theatres reopened its two South Carolina theaters in Indian Land and Myrtle Beach. But, company vice president Dave Coleman said the theaters temporarily closed again after 24 days on Sept. 20.

He said it was a financial decision due to low attendance and limited films. He said they need a series of feature films to be released to build more momentum.

“We need some product that will hopefully entice our loyal customers to come back and enjoy movies in our theater safely,” Coleman said.

He said the target sate to reopen the theaters is Nov. 20 with the new James Bond film “No Time To Die.”

Stone Theatres is a small family-run, regional theater chain started over 12 years ago and each theater has 14 screens, Coleman said. The company received a federal PPP loan of $150,000-$350,000, according public records. But now it’s been over six months since the theaters closed.

“Not only do we need our studio partners to hopefully cooperate and release some meaningful film our guests want to see but we truly need another round of stimulus,” Coleman said.

“Our industry has been for many decades the fabric of the American way of life. You can not replicate the magic of the big screen in your home,” he said. “It just seems we go completely unnoticed. They’ve taken us for granted.”

Bars

“What does he have against us?” Jamie Starks, owner of Tommy’s Pub on Eastway Drive, asked after Cooper’s announcement. “This is insane.”

He was scrambling late Wednesday afternoon to get to the Mecklenburg County ABC office to apply for a permit to allow for more space outside his pub for customers. Right now, he can fit only five or six patrons with social distancing, he said.

Starks is a registered Independent who said he voted for Cooper. “He is a disappointment,” Starks said he now feels.

Not only did the governor wait five months to mandate the wearing of masks in public, Starks said, he let large retailers like Walmart and Home Depot stay open throughout. Many small businesses are open, while his establishment remains shuttered, he said ahead of Wednesday’s announcement.

“Every night, I pass breweries, taprooms, and they’re packed,” he said. “We’re private membership only. We know our customers. We see them all the time.”

And where’s the fairness in letting establishments that are basically bars that serve food being allowed to let people inside all these months, as if the virus will skip those places because they serve food, Starks said.

Jackie DeLoach, owner of Hattie’s Tap & Tavern on The Plaza, said she thought Cooper would finally allow bars to open when he took to the podium Wednesday. “It’s hard to hear,” she said.

She said she’s thankful she has a large outdoor patio but still was disappointed by Wednesday’s announcement. She thought immediately of Tommy’s Pub during Cooper announcement and said she knows of at least four other local bars with no outdoor seating.

“It’s hard to hear,” she said as she watched the governor’s news conference.

A $20,000 loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program helped pay her staff and cover four or five months of rent, but it made her tavern ineligible for subsequent $25,000 government grants to help businesses through the pandemic, she said.

At one point, DeLoach set up a lemonade stand outside of Hattie’s. Some customers donated $50. “One guy gave us a $100 bill for a plastic cup of lemonade,” she said.

“Honestly, if we didn’t have the support of the neighborhood, we wouldn’t be here,” DeLoach said.

Music venues

“We’re in a new form of limbo,” Joe Kuhlmann, founder and co-owner of The Evening Muse said after Cooper’s announcement.

His and other popular venues including Neighborhood Theatre and Amos’ Southend in Charlotte, the Orange Peel in Asheville and the Haw River Ballroom in Alamance County have no outdoor seating, he said.

Cooper’s announcement also was “a little unnerving” because no date was announced for when he might consider further relaxing restrictions, Kuhlmann said. “It was disheartening but kind of expected,” he said.

Bernie Brown, owner of Charlotte’s Visulite Theatre said before the announcement he would have been “completely shocked” if Cooper let theaters and other venues reopen this week.

“It’s terrible for all bars and venues,” Brown said of being closed so long. “It’s been a really painful year, but The Visulite Theatre will make it through this.”

He expects some venues and bars will close for good.

“The really sad part about it is that some restaurants and breweries are blatantly not enforcing social distancing, and no one seems to get in trouble,” he said.

Brown said he’d like Cooper to speak specifically about venues and bars “without lumping us together with restaurants who have been able to open.”

“It’s been a tough pill to swallow,” Joe Kuhlmann, founder and co-owner of The Evening Muse said of having to stay closed so long.

He and the owners of other theaters have gotten their hopes up five times over the months when Cooper was set to announce the opening of more businesses, he said. So now “the angle we’ve taken is wait until you hear you can reopen,” he said.

“We know our business model is all about togetherness,” Kuhlmann said. “With the fall season coming, with flu season coming, it just doesn’t seem realistic” to be allowed to open. “And so much of what we rely on are the artists who are touring across the country,” which only worsens the potential for spread of the virus.

Kuhlmann said Cooper’s measures are working, if you compare the state’s deaths per million people rate with that of most neighboring states. At 333 deaths per million people, North Carolina’s rate is about half the national average of 636 deaths, South Carolina’s 652 deaths per million and Georgia’s 659 rate.

“It’s just going to be a long road for us, as it is for everybody,” Kuhlmann said ahead of Cooper’s announcement.

After the announcement, Kuhlmann said the governor’s decision “makes it more imperative for the City Council and General Assembly to come through for us.”

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©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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