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Employees work at a Cineplex in Toronto, on Oct. 6, 2020.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

It was a case of good news, bad news this week for Ontario moviegoers and movie theatre owners.

On Tuesday, Queen’s Park unveiled its Keeping Ontario Safe and Open Framework, a five-tiered colour-coded system designed to ease COVID-19 restrictions on businesses that were affected by last month’s modified “Stage 2” measures. It was a welcome development for audiences desperate to get out of the house, as theatres have been shuttered in the “hot spots” of Toronto, Ottawa, York and Peel regions for the past month. This despite the fact there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 transmission in theatres not only in Canada, but across the globe.

“Evidence strongly suggests that the moviegoing experience is safer than other activities such as indoor dining or attending religious services,” the Global Cinema Federation, which represents more than 100 exhibitors in 90 countries, said last month. “There are no reported cases associated with cinemas, despite the fact that cinemas in countries like Korea, Japan and Sweden remained open for most of the initial period of the pandemic and the additional fact that in different countries and in different parts of the United States, cinemas have been open for three to four months since lockdowns were lifted.”

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A Cineplex employee santizes seats at a movie theatre in Toronto as part of health and safety protocols put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on Oct. 6, 2020.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Yet while Ontario theatres can now reopen if their regional public-health units fall under all but the most severe of “red-control” and “grey-lockdown” tiers, cinemas operating in “orange-restricted” regions – which currently include Toronto, Ottawa, Peel, York and parts of Eastern Ontario – can only play hos to 50 guests a building. That allowance is far fewer than the 50 guests for every auditorium limit under the framework’s “green-prevent” and “yellow-protect” tiers, as well as the modified Stage 3 restrictions that the province’s cinemas were complying with in August and September.

“The criteria for ‘orange-restrict’ that limits cinemas to 50 per building is just a shutdown by another name. The government is aware that a ’50 per building' capacity limit is not economically viable,” the Movie Theatre Association of Canada said in a statement this week. “Cinemas have faithfully operated under the approved plan and they have delivered – there have been zero outbreaks linked to cinemas in Ontario. None. Indeed, as best we can tell there have been zero requests for contact tracing data from any movie theatre in the province.”

On Wednesday, Landmark Cinemas, the country’s second-largest exhibitor after Cineplex, announced that it was “simply uneconomic” to open under Ontario’s orange-restrict conditions, and would keep some of its multiplexes – in Caledon, Orleans and Kanata – closed.

“I would have a different view if we were mired in contact tracing, but we’re not,” Landmark chief executive officer Bill Walker says. “It doesn’t make sense and it’s incongruent with reality to impose restrictions on businesses that are operating without even the suspicion of an incident. ... Closing venues that have demonstrated the ability to operate safely will only encourage people to gather in venues where the province has less or no control over mandated health measures."

On Thursday, Cineplex followed suit, keeping 28 of its 68 Ontario theatres closed.

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Moviegoers walk through the lobby of a Cineplex theatre in Toronto. Cineplex is keeping 28 of its 68 Ontario theatres closed.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s new framework comes a month after Lisa MacLeod, the province’s Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture, participated in a “socially distanced, rigorously sanitized and fully masked movie experience” at a Toronto Cineplex location, where she praised theatre operators for delivering a safe customer experience. The minister was not available for comment this week.

While exhibitors face myriad pandemic-era challenges, including a dearth of fresh programming – this weekend’s biggest new release slate is the Kevin Costner/Diane Lane thriller Let Him Go, a respectable offering, but not exactly a blockbuster – there is no hope of recovery if only a trickle of guests are allowed through the door.

“I’m optimistic and I think logic will prevail,” Landmark’s Walker says. “But we’ve had six-plus months of this. We can’t be changing our minds all the time.”

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