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Canucks fans line up outside the Rio Theatre in Vancouver, Jan. 23, 2021. The independent movie theatre, which has been closed due to provincial public health restrictions is now open as a sports bar.

Marissa Tiel/The Canadian Press

This weekend, movie theatres will be open across Quebec and in some parts of Ontario, including Ottawa, for the first time in months. Yet cinemas will remain completely shuttered in British Columbia, as they have been since November, all while restaurants, bars and gyms in the province have been permitted to operate the entire time.

“Despite the fact that zero COVID-19 infections have been traced back to an indoor cinema screening anywhere in the world, let alone Canada, we are still among the first to close and last to reopen,” the Movie Theatre Association of Canada said in a statement this week.

“Our industry is being crippled by 10 different provinces claiming to ‘follow the science.’ … Despite asking repeatedly, the provinces refuse to tell us what they know about cinemas that justifies putting our entire industry in shackles. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we suspect this has more to do with political science than traditional medicine.”

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Although the latest report from the BC Centre for Disease Control says that provincial incidence of COVID-19 is “stabilizing,” with the province’s per-capita case rate far below those of Quebec and Ontario, there is no indication that Premier John Horgan’s government will reopen cinemas any time soon. The office of B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix did not offer any statement this week when sent queries from The Globe and Mail.

Meanwhile, next door in Alberta, theatres will remain closed until the province reaches its “Step 3″ phase, although restaurants, bars and gyms reopened when the province entered “Step 1″ on Feb. 8. In Manitoba, the provincial government announced Thursday that it plans to reopen restaurants, bars, gyms, pools and arcades, among other recreational businesses, before cinemas. And on Friday, Nova Scotia announced it would be closing theatres in Halifax for at least a month.

“I have had many calls with government over the past year. We have sent letters and hosted guided tours,” Cineplex chief executive officer Ellis Jacob, head of Canada’s largest theatre chain, said this week. “We have literally done everything we can to educate officials to the fact that moviegoing is safe, but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

“What is difficult to understand is that despite global data, and being lauded by an Ontario cabinet minister for setting the ‘gold standard’ of operating policies, each province, and even specific regions, across Canada have created guidelines that are inconsistent with not only the facts but with each other,” Mr. Jacob said.

The situation leaves the exhibition sector in an increasingly precarious position. While one independent theatre, Vancouver’s The Rio, rebranded itself as a sports bar in a bid to both work around and mock restrictions, others cannot see much of a future unless action is taken immediately.

”We’re at the end of our rope. Every day is a struggle, and we’ve burned through savings just trying to keep the lights on,” says Rahim Manji, who operates B.C.’s Hollywood 3 Cinemas, which has locations in Surrey, South Surrey, Pitt Meadows and Duncan (a fifth location, also in Surrey, closed in September after negotiations with the landlord fell through). “It feels like the government is picking and choosing what stays open without doing so fairly.”

David Hothi, owner of the four-screen Paradise Cinemas in Williams Lake, B.C., says his goal is to try to hang on until the end of this summer. But he is concerned about the impact that closings, especially in areas that rely on independent theatres, have on the local community.

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”Movie theatres are an integral part of life here,” he says. “We’re able to keep students working, to give parents a night out, to give families somewhere to go. I feel like we’re being singled out and are thought of as disposable. And that will affect entire towns.”

The situation also hits businesses across the province’s, and country’s, film-industry food chain.

”It’s a ripple effect that is very dire. Theatre owners, theatre staff, film distributors, cleaners, pre-show companies, content creators, media sales, technicians, the list goes on and on,” said Andrew Olcott, whose Vancouver-based company ReelDeal Media provides preshow entertainment for independent theatres, and has seen almost no income since shutdowns took effect.

“If other businesses are allowed to operate with the same square footage or less, and the same safety procedures in place as movie theatres, why can’t our industry be allowed to operate?”

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