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People dance to Arkells as they perform at the Budweiser Stage in Toronto, on Aug. 13, 2021. The concert marked the first live event for the band since the pandemic.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Last week, the Ontario government announced that beginning Sept. 22, people will need to be fully inoculated against COVID-19 and provide proof of their vaccination status in order to access certain indoor businesses and settings, including concerts, music festivals, theatres and cinemas.

Across the board, representatives of the live music industry such as managers, promoters, venue owners and booking agents contacted by The Globe and Mail applauded the measure. They also had this to say: It’s not enough. As long as crowd sizes are capped at a reduced capacity to allow for physical distancing, Ontario’s live music industry is in a holding pattern at best.

“We all support the vaccine mandate, we think’s great,” said Jeff Cohen, concert promoter and part owner of Toronto indie-rock venues the Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace. “But I’m operating at 23-per-cent capacity right now, which doesn’t make any sense.”

Jack Ross, a Toronto agent with APA Agency Canada who represents Hamilton rock band Arkells among other big-name acts, believes venues need be at full volume. “The industry may never be the same again,” he said. “People lost their livelihood. I laid off half my staff last summer.

“We need to move to 100-per-cent capacity to have a healthy industry and to be able to bring people back to work. The vaccine passport is what is necessary to do that.”

Under Stage 3 of Ontario’s reopening plan, outdoor music venues are limited to 75-per-cent capacity. Shows by Blue Rodeo, Arkells and Sam Roberts at Toronto’s Budweiser Stage amphitheatre in August drew more than 10,000 fans each.

“It was incredibly thrilling for those artists to get back on stage and perform and do what they love to do,” said Ross, who was involved with the Budweiser Stage concerts.

This fall, however, concerts move indoors, where allowed capacities in Ontario range from 25 per cent for clubs and 50 per cent for larger venues, up to a maximum limit of 1,000 people for seated events. At those numbers, we’ll see local bands in hometown venues, but it’s not feasible for touring acts to play to such small crowds.

“When you’re on the road, every show counts,” said Bernie Finkelstein, who is singer-guitarist Bruce Cockburn’s long-time manager. “If you play to 50-per-cent capacity, your ticket sales are cut in half, but the expenses for the bus, the crew and the equipment stay the same.”

The margins have always been tight. On a 30-show tour, for example, the profit comes from the last concerts. “If we lose two concerts because of COVID-19 restrictions, we’d probably decide to scrap the whole tour,” Finkelstein said. “We’ve cancelled two tours already. To make it worthwhile, the tour has to pay for itself in a meaningful way.”

The hope in the industry is that Ontario’s new vaccine mandate will allow the province to move sooner to Stage 4 of its reopening plan and advance to full-capacity indoor events.

While many in the industry believe a quick return to full-capacity shows in Ontario is essential, some venues can survive with sparser, physically distanced audiences better than others. Not-for-profit performing arts centres and other charitable organizations, for example, have endowments and the support of governments and corporate and personal donors.

“We have other income and we don’t rely on bar sales,” said Mervon Mehta, executive director of performing arts at the Royal Conservatory’s Telus Centre for Performance and Learning. He’s responsible for the operation and programming of the 1,135-seat Koerner Hall in Toronto. “We can skate by for a little bit at 35-per-cent full.”

Like many presenters, Koerner Hall expects to livestream a number of performances to reach a bigger audience.

“We’ve been starting and stopping and pivoting and pirouetting just like everybody else,” Mehta said. “But we’ve been selling tickets like crazy in the last two days. There’s no question about it, people are ready to see live music.”

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