TORONTO — British Columbia officials plan to meet next week with arts organizations who've felt shut out of conversations about reopening plans during the pandemic.
Donna Spencer, artistic producer of Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver, says she'll be meeting with Melanie Mark, B.C.'s minister of tourism, arts, culture and sport, as well as provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and/or her deputy, Dr. Brian Emerson.
The meeting also may include members of a task force Spencer created involving more than 100 arts organizations across the province, including the BC Touring Council, the Arts Club Theatre Company, and the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance.
Spencer and other arts leaders in parts of Canada have expressed frustration over a lack of communication from officials, who have imposed greater restrictions on movie theatres and live performance venues than other businesses during the pandemic.
They say the restrictions on their sector are unfair, hypocritical and lack scientific evidence. And they've sent letters, protocol guidelines and data showing their arts venues are just as safe — if not safer — than some of the businesses that are allowed to run.
Next week's meeting is "finally some good news" after months of waiting for answers, says Spencer, who noted in a recent interview that it's been "very frustrating for arts organizations that are running venues to be excluded from the conversation."
Another possible silver lining: On Thursday the Manitoba government said it may allow concert halls and theatres to reopen.
Corinne Lea, CEO of the Rio Theatre in Vancouver, said she's tried everything she can to start a conversation with provincial officials.
In January, she sent a letter requesting exemption from the pandemic law keeping movie theatres closed.
She also drafted a petition that has about 10,000 signatures and scientific data she says proves cinemas are safe environments to be in, and that theatres should be treated the same way as restaurants and bars.
But until news of next week's meeting came down Wednesday afternoon, there hadn't been any response.
"This year has been traumatic for the arts community. People are having mental health issues," Lea said. "But any time any of us hears that 'we're all in this together line,' it's insulting. Because clearly we're not all in this together.
"Our industry, we feel like we've got someone's boot on our throat while everyone else is carrying on as normal."
Meanwhile, New York, Los Angeles and other cities around the world have started opening some cinemas and arts venues.
"The fact that they don't want to engage in conversation is what's really upsetting and concerning," said John Karastamatis, director of communications for Toronto-based theatre giant Mirvish Productions, which hasn't been able to stage a show during the entire pandemic.
"I don't think anybody wants to put on a performing arts event and risk anybody's health and safety. No one wants to do that. We're just trying to find ways of being able to still have the performing arts and not put anybody at risk."
Henry was not made available for an interview with The Canadian Press. Instead, the B.C. Ministry of Health sent a statement saying the provincial "government has been in conversations with members in the arts sector and will continue to listen to feedback from the community and stakeholders."
A statement from the press secretary for Ontario Culture Minister Lisa MacLeod pointed out the funding the government has given to support the arts sector in the last year and said the government looks "forward to bringing back all of our performance facilities when it is safe to do so."
In B.C., movie theatres and live performing arts venues were allowed to start operating under COVID-19 protocols in July but were shut down again in November.
However, restaurants, bars and other retail outlets have been allowed to operate under COVID-19 protocols.
And on Monday, Henry said she was working with faith leaders to safely reopen in-person religious services for Passover and Easter.
To skirt the rules, Lea rebranded the Rio Theatre as a sports bar nearly two months ago, which has allowed the venue to be open with 125 people socially distanced indoors, versus the 50-person capacity it had when it was allowed to be open as a cinema before November.
"Just because we've got sports on our big screen, it doesn't prevent COVID," she said, pointing out the "obvious hypocrisy" of the situation. She also noted the Rio had no coronavirus cases when it was open as a cinema and she isn't aware of any theatre that's had an outbreak.
In fact, her venue feels even less safe to her staff now, Lea added. That's because provincial rules state the venue has to serve patrons in their seats as a sports bar, instead of selling tickets and snacks behind a glass barrier.
Lea would prefer to be open as a theatre — even if it's just with a cap of 50 people, which represents just 12 per cent of the Rio's 420-seat capacity.
She also feels there's more risk of the virus spreading through the talking and cheering that happens in a bar versus a movie theatre, where patrons are generally quiet.
"So that's where I get really offended when people say, 'Cinemas have to be closed because of science or safety,'" Lea said. "You don't have to be a scientist to see that a glass barrier is safer than face-to-face contact."
The B.C. Ministry of Health said the Rio is able to operate as a sports bar "because food services, including restaurants and other facilities that prepare and serve food, are deemed essential services and have required health and safety protocols in place."
When cinemas in Canada were running during the first and second waves, there were zero reported instances of transmission or outbreaks associated with the screenings, according to the Motion Theatre Association of Canada, which represents the exhibitors behind more than 3,000 movie screens nation-wide.
MTAC executive director Nuria Bronfman said a handful of employees called in saying they tested positive but "it was caught outside of the work environment and never transmitted to any employees."
The MTAC argues movie theatres are safer than restaurants for many reasons, including the fact that patrons are facing forward instead of at each other, and aren't speaking with other guests.
"Nobody can tell us why a movie theatre is an unsafe environment, even after politicians have been in our spaces and have said our spaces are the gold standard," said Bronfman.
"It's obviously not data-driven and it makes public confidence go down."
Karastamatis said Mirvish has shared its COVID-19 guidelines with all levels of government in Toronto, where cinemas and performing arts venues are also closed under current pandemic protocols, but "they're not willing to have a conversation."
"We have no idea whether anyone has even looked at them," he said. "It's understandable that if the risk is in gatherings, all gatherings should not be allowed. But why do you allow some gatherings and not others?"
By contrast, "governments are perfectly willing to look at restaurants, they're willing to look at faith-based gatherings," he said.
Film and TV productions have also been allowed to shoot in the province with COVID-19 protocols.
"What is the difference?" Karastamatis said. "These actors are performing together, technicians are all around them, they are filming them. And if the same thing were to be done with a theatre company, it wouldn't be allowed."
Karastamatis said it seems governments consider the arts "a frill that you allow a certain segment of the society to have just to keep them quiet, but that they really don't matter, they don't contribute to the economy, they don't contribute to civil life."
Yet the arts create a lot of employment and economic spinoff, especially locally and in urban settings, he noted.
"The government will accept that a person's spiritual health is important, yet they don't consider what the arts do as something important or even spiritual, which I think it is," Karastamatis said.
The collective experience of in-person arts events are also crucial for aiding mental health at a time when people are stuck indoors staring at screens, said Lea.
"I would argue that art is essential for our spirits," she said. "All you have to do is imagine this last year with no art. And that just tells you how hard it would have been to get through it."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2021.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press