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New York City Movie Theaters Reopen After Nearly A Year Of COVID Restrictions

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Nearly five months after Westchester County and Long Island theaters reopened, New York City movie theaters welcomed back audiences Friday.

Theaters can reopen at 25% capacity, with no more than 50 people per screen at a time. Masks and social distancing are required, except when eating or drinking, and seats will be pre-assigned.

As CBS2's John Dias reported, the popcorn was popped and the soda was flowing. Some things felt the same at many theaters again for a pastime countless have missed.

"Just the experience of getting out of the house and doing something else, being around other people," Manhattan resident Lars Dewenter told Dias.

It's been almost a year since statewide COVID restrictions shut down movie theaters. Mostly all have since been lifted, but the city was last. So most New Yorkers have been forced to stream movies at home.

"Watching at home by myself is different," said Ricky Ho, of Rego Park, Queens.

Watch John Dias' report --

Robert Pearlstein was first in line at the box office on reopening day at IFC Center Greenwich Village.

"Movies were made to be seen in movie theaters," he told CBS2's Dave Carlin.

He settled into a middle seat in the auditorium, making note of the restrictions.

"This entire row is taped off in front of us, so they are taking the precautions necessary to make sure that social distancing is being properly affected," he said.

"Twenty-five percent capacity is a whole heck of a lot better than zero," said John Vanco, IFC Center's senior vice president and general manager.

While some companies like Regal Cinemas still haven't set a reopening date, and others aren't opening concession stands, AMC Theaters welcomed back guests at all of its 13 city theaters.

A line formed before the one in Times Square reopened. Dias met an Upper East Side man named Thomas who had been waiting outside for an hour to make sure he scored a ticket to see "Raya and the Last Dragon."

"It's a Disney film, and the last Disney movie I saw in theaters was of course 'Onward,'" he said.

He said he feels safe being back, especially since AMC partnered with Clorox and Harvard University public health faculty to develop safety protocol, including upgraded air filtration and automatic seat blocking in each auditorium.

"It's more safer than, no offense to any people at restaurants, but it's more safer than dining inside," he added.

Some say they don't want to return to seeing movies in theaters just yet.

"I would wait it out and give it some more time. COVID is still at risk," Crown Heights resident Jasmine Powers said. "All the new movies are airing on TV ... You can watch it at home."

But some in the Big Apple say big screen entertainment is the way to go and they're glad it's back.

"The popcorn, the big screen, the Dolby surround sound. The stuff you just don't get at home watching on your regular TV," Flatbush resident Beverly Johnson said.

At the AMC in Lincoln Square, actor Liam Neeson welcomed back the audience.

"I've missed it quite a bit. It's a big part of my life," moviegoer Joseph Ziliotto said.

Friends Katie Holden and Brechen Branstrator, of Harlem, came to the theater double-masked. They were so excited they didn't even care what movie they saw.

"I was counting down the days until the theater opened again," Holden told CBS2's Jessica Layton.

"We're more just here for, like, the experience again. Something to do. It just feels like a piece of pre-COVID times," Branstrator said.

"It's nice to think we can get back to something a little bit more normal," Holden said.

Watch Jessica Layton's Report --

Nearly five months ago, big screen entertainment returned in Westchester County and on Long Island. Only now are New York City competitors getting the chance to try to catch up.

Some plan to do that by offering additional private screenings for audiences within a single household bubble.

Billiard halls also reopened statewide Friday at 35% capacity in New York City and 50% outside the city.

CBS2's John Dias and Jessica Layton contributed to this report.

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