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The renowned Koerner Hall in Toronto. In Ontario, all indoor arts venues of any kind are now closed, as provincial governments face down the highly transmissible Omicron variant with widely differing regulations.Tom Arban/Koerner Hall

The father of a six-year-old recently told me the Ontario government reminds him of a nervous new driver: body hunched forward in the seat, hands gripped on the wheel, eyes focused on the one metre of pavement directly in front of the hood. Parents in Ontario, who got a weekend’s notice that school was moving online, might envy those in Nova Scotia and Quebec who got a whole week’s warning.

If Canadian parents are frustrated by reactive measures, artists and arts groups are nearing despair over the latest round of erratic restrictions in their fields. Provincial governments are facing down the highly transmissible Omicron variant with widely differing regulations, apparently unanchored by any hard data on what works and what doesn’t. In British Columbia, the new rules halve capacity limits in performance venues, in Quebec they shutter all theatres and performance spaces and, in Ontario, all indoor arts venues of any kind are now closed. Often the rules say more about what particular leaders value than what might stop COVID. The country’s big art institutions, including the Vancouver Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Ontario and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, all say there have been no reported cases of transmission associated with their reopening: Quebec has exempted museums from this new closure; Ontario has locked them down.

Artists, particularly in the hard-hit performance sector, have got to wonder how much Canadian society really values the arts or understands that being a gigging violinist, a singer/songwriter or a stage actor is a grownup job with real social benefits attached, not merely for the low-paid arts workers themselves but, more importantly, for the rest of us. Few people talk much about the damage done when people can’t gather to hear a band in club, attend a new play or take in an art show. On the day before the AGO was forced to close its doors, almost 2,000 people safely spent time there. It’s a subtler relationship than schooling is to children but the arts are central to psychological health – not to mention the economy.

This week I spoke with Mervon Mehta, the executive director of performing arts at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and the person responsible for programming concerts at the renowned Koerner Hall. He had just emerged from a three-hour budget-redo meeting where he juggled three different scenarios for 2022, as the venue faced down another closure and another round of cancellations.

In a typical year, Mehta programs about 100 concerts and rents out space for another 100. In 2021, that number was cut by three-quarters. Still, when things opened up last September, the Conservatory did play host to 75 public events; audiences took their seats; music students came and went at all hours. No one was allowed in the building who wasn’t vaccinated; there was no eating, drinking or intermissions, and in the four instances where a patron refused to wear a mask they were asked to leave. Mehta said that there was not a single instance where a COVID exposure was reported during those four months of operation. If the current closure lasts only three weeks, the Conservatory will be cutting a total of 1,500 days of work from ushers, tech crews and artists, all of them gig workers.

“I understand the government can’t cherry-pick but we have been calling for a more nuanced approach,” Mehta says. “Look at a museum: everyone is vaccinated; everyone is distanced, yet Canadian Tire is open but the [Royal Ontario Museum] is closed. … It’s easy to make a quick judgment: Let’s close all these things. It looks like the government is doing something. But it is destroying these industries and destroying mental health.”

Anyone dedicated to a career in the arts is a risk-taker used to inconsistent income but the damage COVID has done, particularly in the performing arts, is without precedent; this is the fourth time in two years that arts workers have had to shelve their careers. Federal income supports have been renewed but at a lower rate; in December, the federal government did announce the $60-million Canada Performing Arts Workers Resilience Fund for 2022-23 but it will not be available until the spring. Many gig and contract workers have simply switched to other jobs, while newcomers are unlikely to join such precarious fields. Shuttered institutions, which have depended on payroll subsidies but are now trying to figure out if they qualify for new programs, will survive, but individual artists will abandon the arts, depriving Canada of their creativity.

When the pandemic finally ends and Canadian cities attempt to restore their downtowns, they will need musicians, actors and dancers to bring back night life but may find that work force as depleted and exhausted as that of the health care sector.

The career-killing provincially mandated closures seem to reveal politicians’ values or fears more than anything else. Quebec’s paternalist leaders clearly fear partying: it’s the only jurisdiction in Canada that has enacted curfews – which did make plays and concerts logistically difficult during a period last spring when theatres were open but the curfew was on. On the other hand, the François Legault regime has no exaggerated respect for religion: no services are permitted except funerals, and those have a limit of 25 people, that’s it. Meanwhile, Doug Ford’s government in Ontario is allowing religious services to continue at half capacity.

Also, in Ontario, certain business sectors are being left largely alone: under the new rules, retail, factories and those absolutely crucial Amazon warehouses all remain open.

The truth is you are less likely to catch COVID in a museum or cinema than in a factory. When the Vancouver International Film Festival offered 280 screenings and talks to more than 30,000 attendees during 10 days last October, no transmissions were reported. Meanwhile, at the Toronto International Film Festival there was only one instance where a patron reported they had tested positive after a screening but said they had not caught the virus at TIFF. It’s this inconsistency in the rules that has artists so dispirited. The message, certainly in Ontario, is that the arts are a frill, not a business.

Still, there is one arts sector that hasn’t been asked to close down since June, 2020: Film and television production, a $9-billion industry in Canada, has not ceased since that original three-month closure. Money talks, and the production industry, which creates the equivalent of 245,000 full time jobs a year, can afford dedicated COVID officers and continual testing. The commercial theatre business, where it is impossible to rehearse without maskless contact, has not been so lucky: on Dec. 23, Mirvish Productions was forced to close the musical Come From Away, which had just reopened to happy audiences. The final straw was a single case of COVID in the company, but the theatre producer was already financially struggling with Ontario’s decision (before the new lockdown) to halve capacity in theatres.

Nor have cinemas fared well: in Ontario and Quebec they are now shut, while B.C. has halved their capacity but does still allow them to sell popcorn.

Motivations differ and it can be hard to judge whether individual groups or businesses that are all fighting for survival are serving their own interests or the public’s. In the Ottawa area, the twin institutions, the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., and the Canadian War Museum in the capital, took proactive measures and closed before Ontario government orders came down, shutting their doors on Dec. 23, partly because of rising Omicron cases in the Ottawa-Gatineau area, and partly because of some cases among museum staff – albeit not identified as an outbreak. If the museums were to follow provincial guidelines, we would be back in Alice in Wonderland territory: the War Museum in Ottawa would legally have to close; the Museum of History, two kilometres away across the Ottawa River, could remain open, because Quebec has exempted museums from its recent restrictions.

It’s not all bad news out there. In a regular year, the Art Gallery of Ontario welcomes about 35,000 schoolchildren on field trips. In 2020-21, 700,000 kids and their teachers took advantage of the online equivalents. In Vancouver, Boca del Lupo Theatre has joined forces with the Dr. Peter Centre, an AIDS/HIV organization, to promote the vaccine rollout by commissioning Dialogues for the Vaccine Hesitant and Those Who Love Them, four short audio plays performed by four theatre companies across the country. They are distributed as free podcasts to anyone anywhere. Access is a crucial issue for arts institutions, ensuring that their publicly funded programming reaches all sectors of society. When we finally emerge from COVID, there will be a large social task ahead, helping artists re-establish their careers and making sure all audiences can benefit from the arts.

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