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‘Bleeding to death’: Vancouver arts venues speak up against 'punishing' COVID restrictions

Vancouver based cinemas, theatres and art galleries are trying to get the ear of Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry to lift restrictions
The Rio Theatre is among the many Vancouver arts venues that feels unduly targeted by B.C.'s COVID-19 restrictions. File photo via Dan Toulgoet

For the owners of many cinemas, movie theatres and art galleries in Vancouver, hearing Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry say she regularly listens to concerns from the restaurant industry was the last straw.

At a recent press conference, Henry responded to criticism from several restaurants impacted by the 8 p.m. liquor sale cut-off on December 31.

“I will just say that the communication around New Year’s Eve was done for a very specific purpose because of the information that I was receiving from the beverage industry, from the restaurant industry,” she said. 

A petition for consultation

The following day the Rio Theatre’s official Twitter account posted a tweet that read “Very frustrating to learn that Dr Henry meets ‘regularly’ with members of the restaurant industry to help them plan future ‘events,’ but has not responded to our repeated request for consult. How do we get a meeting?”

Corinne Lea, owner and operator of the Rio Theatre, has been seeking the health officer’s ear for some time now, going so far as to create a petition directed at Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix.

“With safety as your main priority, we are concerned that your recent order to close down movie theatres is not supported by the research or data that clearly indicate there are no known COVID-19 outbreaks or transmissions at Canadian cinemas,” the petition reads.

“We feel that movie theatres and screenings have been miscategorized by your administration as ‘events,’ instead of as a business operating within the hospitality or food and beverage industry.”

The petition that has been signed by over 6,600 people also includes a litany of articles and scientific papers which Lea says shows the virus has not spread in any theatres around the world.

When the Rio was able to operate back in November, before the thrice-extended ban on social gatherings, the theatre was able to consistently sell out the mandated maximum of 50 people.

"I felt really proud. Our customers were complimenting us about how safe they felt," Lea said. "Getting shut down really felt like a punishment when we really hadn't done anything wrong."

Safer than restaurants

In an interview with Vancouver Is Awesome, Lea said the public might think 50 people going to a theatre to watch a movie super spreader event waiting to happen but Lea believes that simply isn’t the reality.

"50 people don't gather all together to go see a movie,” she said. “They come in just like they would at a restaurant, you get seated in your seat, in a pod, just like you would at a restaurant and everything's spaced out and people are not engaging with each other."

Due to the theatre’s high ceilings and the fact that at no point during a show does anyone need to take off their mask to talk to someone, Lea believes movie theatres are actually safer than restaurants and bars.

Lea says she understands not every business is going to get a seat at the table with Bonnie Henry but added that even theatre advocacy groups haven't been able to reach the public health office.

Before the shutdown Lea said she was able to save some money but now after weeks of restrictions she has been eating through any savings she was able to acquire.

"We're relying on the rent subsidy and the wage subsidy, without that we would be done,” she said. “We desperately need that to continue otherwise the Rio is gone."

Trying to start a dialogue 

Donna Spencer, the artistic producer for the Firehall Arts Centre has also been fighting to be heard. Spencer and other colleagues across the province have requested to work with public health authorities on a task force to identify ways how art spaces can operate within COVID-19 restrictions. 

"I'm very supportive of all the actions that (provincial health authorities) are taking but it does feel a bit frustrating that the arts is kind of an afterthought,” Spencer said. “It actually is a really important and unifying and healing kind of activity that would benefit a lot of people just sitting at home.”

The non-profit’s final show was November 22 and had been operating throughout the summer outdoors and in the theatre in the fall for audiences of around 50. According to Spencer, the theatre’s patrons had no complaints with many saying they felt much safer while attending shows than they did shopping at a grocery store.

"We're not quite sure why the arts have not been considered in how these restrictions are being decided and that's why we've requested that we actually have some ongoing dialogue to sort this out," Spencer said.

‘Cockamamie decision making’

Jude Beaumont, the owner of Beaumont Studios on West 5th Ave, is just about to launch a fundraising campaign to keep the studio going.

"We are managing to stay afloat but we are bleeding to death," Beaumont said.

While she says the studio is in a luckier position than other arts venues, the shutdown left the gallery high and dry as well. 

In the summer, the studio invested in headsets so groups of 50 could watch movies outdoors and socially distanced. Along with the movies came music productions and comedy nights. The outdoor venue evolved with the changing seasons and by November the studio spent $40,000 on tents and heaters that due to the ban were no longer in use.

With restrictions potentially ending now on Feb. 5, the studio announced a show for Feb. 14, which has already sold out. 

"We know there's an appetite in the community for people wanting to get out and be a part of and we know that our community knows that we're safe and that we've created a safe space for them," Beaumont said.

“The fact that I can sit down in a restaurant in Whistler and have a fondue dinner with six of my family members but I can't go to an outdoor, covered space and sit six feet away from somebody there, it's like - some cockamamie decision making going on," she added.

Where the decision making came from

Back in November when the restrictions were put in place, Dr. Henry explained the need for the cancellation of social events was due to the surging case numbers.

"If we are able to get into a place of control, then some of these lower-risk events may happen again," said Henry. "But right now, we need to stop all of those opportunities for us to congregate, to go out and do things socially."

Bars and restaurants remained open because they offer important ways to ensure that people get meals, explained Henry. 

- With files from Elana Shepert