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A man eats popcorn at the Cineplex Cinemas at Yonge and Dundas Street, in Toronto, on Dec. 16, 2019.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Popcorn, and common sense, are back on the menu when Ontario movie theatres reopen Jan. 31.

On Thursday, Premier Doug Ford’s government released revised pandemic regulations that include the resumption of food and drink service inside cinemas and theatres, indoor sporting venues, live-music spaces, casinos and bingo halls once they reopen after an almost month-long shutdown. The move marks a sharp reversal of public-health restrictions that forbade indoor concessions until at least Feb. 21.

Those restrictions, announced Jan. 20, when Queen’s Park unveiled a gradual easing of public-health measures elsewhere, felt arbitrary and even punitive, given that restaurants and bars would be allowed to operate while concession stands would remain off-limits.

“The intent is to make sure people who are [inside theatres] are keeping their masks on the entire time, so we’re not having long periods without their masks,” Michelle Murti, Ontario’s Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health, said last week during a technical briefing by the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries.

A Globe and Mail request for clarification regarding the policy’s inconsistency – with restaurant and bar customers allowed to dine and drink maskless in close quarters for hours while moviegoers were denied the same opportunity in larger, typically better ventilated spaces – went unanswered by the Ministry of Health and the Chief Medical Officer of Health’s office.

“The announcement today in Ontario is very welcome news and consistent with all of the science and data that shows cinemas are among the safest indoor environments for eating, drinking, and enjoying out of home entertainment,” Nuria Bronfman, executive director of the Movie Theatre Association of Canada, said in a statement Thursday.

Sarah Van Lange, the vice-president of communications for Cineplex, said in a separate statement that the company “worked closely with the province and provided them with the data showing the overwhelming safety of cinemas and food in cinemas.”

Meanwhile, cinemas in Quebec are scheduled to finally reopen their doors, with capacity restrictions, starting Feb. 7, after being shuttered for almost two months. (It is not yet clear whether food and drink will be permitted.)

In announcing the measure this week, Luc Boileau, the province’s newly appointed interim director of public health, said “there have not been many [COVID] cases in cinemas and performing halls.” This marks perhaps the first instance of a Canadian health official publicly saying such venues are not to blame for outbreaks.

Ontario theatres, where proof of vaccination is required, will still be subject to 50-per-cent capacity regulations when they reopen Jan. 31. Some venues, including the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, are delaying their reopening until Feb. 3, closer to the traditional weekend moviegoing slot.

Full capacity is set to begin no earlier than Feb. 21. But given Ontario’s pandemic history when it comes to handling the arts sector with nuance and logic, don’t be too surprised if there’s a last-minute plot twist.

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