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Movie theatres in Quebec were allowed to reopen Friday, but owners are wondering how long they can operate without selling food and with customers who have to be home by 8 p.m.

Eric Bouchard, co-president of a movie theatre owner group, Association des proprietaires de cinemas du Quebec, said his members planned to reopen their doors Friday after their businesses had been shut down by the government since October. Revenue, he said, is expected to be much lower than usual.

“Not being able to show films in the evening because of the curfew and not selling food makes our business model very difficult in terms of profitability,” Bouchard said in a recent interview.

At least one major theatre owner says the rules make it impossible for him to reopen, while those who welcomed patrons back on Friday say they aren’t sure the government’s plan is sustainable.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault said he opened movie theatres to give families something to do during March break week, which begins Monday.

But he ordered theatres in “red” pandemic-alert zones – such as Montreal and Quebec City – to keep their concession stands closed because he wants moviegoers to keep their masks on throughout the duration of the films. Residents in red zones are still under an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, forcing movie theatres to limit their schedules.

Which COVID-19 ‘variants of concern’ are in Canada? Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Lambda explained

COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, and as it spread around the world, it mutated into new forms that are more quickly and easily transmitted through small water droplets in the air. Canadian health officials are most worried about variants that can slip past human immune systems because of a different shape in the spiky protein that latches onto our cells. The bigger fear is that future mutations could be vaccine-resistant, which would make it necessary to tweak existing drugs or develop a new “multivalent” vaccine that works against many types, which could take months or years.

Not all variants are considered equal threats: Only those proven to be more contagious or resistant to physical-distancing measures are considered by the World Health Organization to be “variants of concern.” Five of these been found in Canada so far. The WHO refers to them by a sequence of letters and numbers known as Pango nomenclature, but in May of 2021, it also assigned them Greek letters that experts felt would be easier to remember.

ALPHA (B.1.1.7)

  • Country of origin: Britain
  • Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest, but for full protection, the booster is essential: With only a first dose, the effectiveness is only about 66 per cent.
  • Spread in Canada: First detected in Ontario’s Durham Region in December. It is now Canada’s most common variant type. Every province has had at least one case; Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces have had thousands.

BETA (B.1.351)

  • Country of origin: South Africa
  • Traits: Some vaccines (including Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) appear to be less effective but researchers are still trying to learn more and make sure future versions of their drugs can be modified to fight it.
  • Spread in Canada: First case recorded in Mississauga in February. All but a few provinces have had at least one case, but nowhere near as many as B.1.1.7.

GAMMA (P.1)

  • Country of origin: Brazil
  • Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
  • Spread in Canada: B.C. has had hundreds of cases, the largest known concentration of P.1 outside Brazil. More outbreaks have been detected in Ontario and the Prairies.

DELTA (B.1.617 AND B.1.617.2)

  • Country of origin: India
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Single-dosed people are less protected against it than those with both vaccine doses.
  • Spread in Canada: All but a few provinces have recorded cases, but B.C.’s total has been the largest so far.

LAMBDA (C.37)

  • Country of origin: Peru
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Health officials had been monitoring it since last August, but the WHO only designated it a variant of concern in June of 2021.
  • Spread in Canada: A handful of travel-related cases were first detected in early July.

If I’m sick, how do I know whether I have a variant?

Health officials need to genetically sequence test samples to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and not everyone’s sample will get screened. It’s safe to assume that, whatever the official variant tallies are in your province, the real numbers are higher. But for your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you contract a variant or not: Act as though you’re highly contagious, and that you have been since before your symptoms appeared (remember, COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically). Self-isolate for two weeks. If you have the COVID Alert app, use it to report your test result so others who may have been exposed to you will know to take precautions.

Need more answers? Email audience@globeandmail.com

Bouchard said he hopes families will come during the day next week because kids will be off school. “What we’ve decided is to reopen because we think that with the spring break, we can limit our losses. It will be very difficult afterwards.”

Legault has offered compensation to theatre owners, but Bouchard said the subsidies aren’t enough to make up for the lack of food sales or evening shows.

The government is permitting theatres to continue benefiting from a provincial program designed to keep companies afloat during government-mandated closures. Theatres can continue collecting those cheques for two months after they reopen, Jean-Pierre D’Auteuil, a spokesman for Quebec’s Economy Department, wrote in an e-mail.

That program provides loans to businesses to cover fixed costs. The government is willing to forgive up to $15,000 of those loans per month.

Vincenzo Guzzo, the CEO of Cinemas Guzzo, which operates 10 theatres in the Montreal area, said his theatres will stay closed for now. Reopening without evening shows or concession sales would be a money-losing proposition, he said.

Historically during spring break, he added, 50 per cent of his revenue came from daytime screenings, with the rest coming from evening shows. In a regular week, his theatres only offer daytime screenings on the weekends.

The government support program is insulting, Guzzo said. “You haven’t even re-gifted a gift, you took the same gift you gave me last week, you took it back, you repackaged it, and now gave it to me for St. Valentine’s Day.”

He said if the government offered him more money he would reject it on principle. During a pandemic, he said, “there’s no way I will be accused of taking public money to open my theatres.”

“I don’t want the money, I don’t want popcorn money … I want to sell popcorn.”

During the three months last summer when cinemas were open in Quebec, he said there wasn’t a single reported case of COVID-19 transmission at movie theatres. “Not in our theatres, not in any theatre in Quebec, not in any here in Canada,” he said.

And while Guzzo is saying no to the money, other theatre operators in Quebec don’t have access to it.

Daniel Seguin, senior vice-president at Cineplex, said his company isn’t eligible for the government aid because it’s headquartered in Toronto. The ban on concession sales, he added, “really does not help us financially.”

That ban caught him by surprise, he said. “It was a surprise because this is not something we have anywhere else in Canada.”

Still, Cineplex plans to reopen Friday, he said. “After five months, our goal here is to get the theatres open.”

But, he said, theatres may not stay open seven days a week after spring break if the 8 p.m. curfew or the ban on concession sales continue. “We’ll have to see after spring break what makes business sense,” he said.

In 2019, around a quarter of the company’s revenue came from food sales, according to its annual report.

Bouchard, who co-owns two theatres in Montreal suburbs, said he hopes the rules will be relaxed so he can have evening screenings and start selling the snacks that are part of the movie-going experience.

“We don’t want to live on subsidies, what we want is to operate our cinemas, welcome people, enjoy movies, make everyone happy; that’s what we want to do,” he said.

Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, says results from COVID-19 vaccinations so far are encouraging enough that she thinks the need for massive lockdowns could be over before the end of the summer. But Tam says some of the more personal measures, like wearing masks and limiting close contact outside our households, may be with us longer.

The Canadian Press

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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