(Reuters) – Six movie theater chains, including AMC Entertainment (AMC.N), Cinemark (CNK.N) and Regal Cinemas, have sued New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy for refusing to let them resume operations, even after allowing churches, retailers and indoor shopping malls to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.
The lawsuit filed late Monday in the federal court in Trenton, the state capital, said Murphy’s failure to even set a timetable for theater reopenings, while letting comparable “places of public assembly” open their doors, violated the chains’ constitutional rights to free speech and due process.
Led by the National Association of Theatre Owners, the lawsuit is the industry’s first resulting from the pandemic.
The chains said New Jersey has also allowed the reopening of other businesses, including aquariums, libraries and museums, subject to face covering and social distancing requirements to prevent COVID-19, though fitness centers, gyms and performing arts centers remain closed.
“COVID-19 represents a serious public health risk, and plaintiffs support fair and reasonable actions by the government to address that risk,” the complaint said. “However, the government-mandated total closure of movie theatres is neither fair nor reasonable.”
The lawsuit seeks an injunction blocking New Jersey from enforcing orders that prohibit movie theaters from opening “simultaneously” with comparable venues.
Murphy’s office and the office of acting state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, who is also a defendant, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
New Jersey was an early U.S. hot spot for the pandemic, though it has recently fared better than the many parts of the country where new cases are rising quickly.
Since coronavirus shutdowns began in mid-March, U.S. theater chains have laid off tens of thousands of workers and resorted to increased borrowing to stay solvent.
Some have targeted July for large-scale reopenings, with plans to restrict attendance and boost cleaning.
BJK Entertainment, Bow Tie Cinemas and Community Theaters are also plaintiffs in Monday’s lawsuit.
The case is National Association of Theatre Owners et al v Murphy et al, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey, No. 20-08298.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis