Living in Ontario is a bit like starring in a bad movie.
Plot twists come out of nowhere, the stakes are poorly conveyed, characters’ motivations are fuzzy, and the narrative never seems to make any sense. To wit: On Thursday, the province debuted what might as well be called The Great Reopening: Part III – The Reckoning. In announcing a gradual easing of public-health restrictions starting Jan. 31, Queen’s Park gave approval for indoor restaurants, bars, gyms, casinos, theatres, galleries and, finally, cinemas to reopen, with capacity limits.
It is a welcome bit of news for the entertainment and leisure sector, which has been repeatedly hammered by seemingly arbitrary and punitive shutdowns over the past 22 months. But just as movie theatres, and moviegoers, were ready to burst into applause, they noticed an M. Night Shyamalan-sized surprise: indoor food and drink service is still forbidden in theatres, despite restaurants and bars being allowed to operate.
“The intent is to make sure people who are there are keeping their masks on the entire time, so we’re not having long periods without their masks,” Dr. Michelle Murti, Ontario’s Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health, said during a technical briefing hosted Thursday by the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism, and Culture Industries. Dr. Murti added that food and drink service in cinemas would resume during the second tranche of the province’s latest reopening plan, starting no earlier than Feb. 21. But she made no mention of the contradiction in allowing restaurant and bar customers to dine and drink mask-less for hours in close quarters, while denying theatregoers the same opportunity in larger spaces.
A request for clarification on the policy’s inconsistency, which was forwarded to the Ministry of Health and Chief Medical Officer of Health’s office, went unreturned by Friday morning.
While some Ontario moviegoers might be thrilled to simply head back to theatres again after another closure, there has to be some awareness from government officials on not only the head-shaking measures, but also the fact that theatre-owners cannot be so easily expected to absorb such large cuts to their already decimated businesses. After all, exhibitors retain only about 50 per cent (sometimes less) of their box office take.
“It’s very difficult, but we’ll reopen because we want to keep our guests and employees engaged,” Ellis Jacob, chief executive of Canadian theatre giant Cineplex, said in an interview. “This is totally unwarranted, though, when you have a restaurant serving food and with people at a table inches from each other.”
Bill Walker, chief executive of Landmark Cinemas, which has 10 multiplexes in Ontario, said he, too, would be reopening his theatres, “but not because it makes any economic sense. … It feels insulting that people are patting each other on their backs for these reopening plans, but are missing the point altogether for some industries.”
Meanwhile, the Movie Theatre Association of Canada noted that the province’s cinemas already have some of the strictest safety measures in the world – including capacity restrictions, masks and vaccine passports – and that this latest measure would only “disentitle small and independent cinemas from accessing lockdown relief and other support programs while transforming them into not-profit businesses.”
Perhaps another month without popcorn and soda isn’t the end of the world, but this isn’t the first perplexing public-health measure that Canada’s entertainment industry has been forced to accommodate. Today’s situation most closely echoes the head-scratching reality B.C. cinemas faced in late 2020, when restaurants and bars were allowed to operate, but theatres remained shuttered. (To underline the absurdity, Vancouver’s Rio Theatre at the time rebranded itself as a sports bar, its marquee updated to read, “Screw the Arts. We’re a Sports Bar Now.”)
When Quebec banned cinema concessions for a brief spell last February, Premier François Legault at least announced that his government would compensate exhibitors for the lost revenue, a mini-controversy that was dubbed “Popcorngate.” There is no such indication that Ontario is cooking up a similar measure.
“We haven’t gone down that road at this point because I’d rather be serving our guests than being in a situation with the government putting a subsidy in place,” Jacob said. “It sounds good on paper, but to get there is a lot tougher.”
But that makes sense, because when it comes to Ontario and the arts, nothing make sense anyway. For now, we can only hope that this latest pandemic-era drama doesn’t spawn yet another inferior sequel.
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