TORONTO — Venue owners in Ontario are losing patience with government officials in the province over new restrictions to slow COVID-19 that prohibit even livestream concerts in empty venues, while still allowing film and television productions to continue.
Ontario’s approximately 800 live music or music-reliant venues — 588 of which are in Toronto — have been receiving stop-and-go orders for over a year. They first shuttered last March when the pandemic hit, and then, depending on the region and number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, were cleared to reopen again in July with strict limited capacity.
Since Oct. 9, with cases spiking again, they’ve been closed. Many venues have pivoted to hosting livestream concerts with safety protocols in place for artists and crew. The Ontario government supported that move and created The Reconnect Festival and Event Program in the fall to help organizers adapt to changing public health guidelines by investing over $7 million Canadian dollars ($5.6 million) in virtual and drive-in events.
Ontario is Canada’s most populated province and has endured the most cases of COVID-19, getting hardest hit by a new wave of infections. Across Canada, each province and territory is in a different stage of the pandemic: The four Atlantic provinces, where cases are comparatively low, can now do live shows with restricted capacities, while others — including Quebec, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories and British Columbia — can only host livestreams with health and safety restrictions in place.
Now, cases in Ontario are spiking again, surpassing January-level highs and leading to a new stay-at-home order beginning last Thursday. (As of Monday, April 12, the seven-day average of new daily cases rose to 3,782 — a new record.) Just over 15% of Canadians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“The COVID-19 situation is at a critical stage and we must act quickly and decisively to stay ahead of these deadly new variants,” says Premier Doug Ford, who heads the Ontario government. “By imposing these strict new measures, we will keep people safe while allowing our vaccination program to reach more people, starting with our high-risk population and identified hot spots.”
Ontario officials plan to reassess the stay-at-home order on or before May 6, but in the meantime, venues claim they’re being unfairly targeted.
Through the government grant program, Toronto’s marquee club the Horseshoe Tavern received nearly 100,000 Canadian dollars ($80,000) in February to produce 13 livestream events. With the latest order, the venue’s co-owner, Jeff Cohen, who also co-owns Lee’s Palace and is president of promoter Collective Concerts, has had to postpone eight shows for acts including Metz, Terra Lightfoot and Hawksley Workman.
“It’s understandable to postpone livestreams if our province and city go into a non-essential lockdown,” Cohen says. “But it’s unfair for the government to pick winners and losers. It’s unfair that TV/film can keep filming, it’s unfair that music studios can keep recording, and it’s unfair that retail stores and retail big box stores … that are non-essential can keep operating.”
When asked at an April 7 press conference about the preference given film and TV production over music, David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said that TV and film productions have been “very strict on their investment of testing and protocols” around the coronavirus, while music venues have not made “the same type of protective investments, which does cost money” for livestream events.
Ontario’s film and television productions contributed 2.16 billion Canadian dollars ($1.72 billion) to the economy in 2019, according to figures from The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA).
After the first state of emergency and stay at home order last March, many venues went to considerable expense to make their premises health and safety compliant in anticipation of a gradual reopening, which was fraught with setbacks. For example, the 700-capacity Burlington Performing Arts Centre (BPAC) created a comprehensive safety plan that follows mask requirements and incorporates other safety precautions. These include increased air filters (HVAC system), socially distanced ticketing and seating, staff and patron health screening, comprehensive sanitizing of the facility three times daily and between performances, plexiglass screens to place between artists and between artists and audiences, and capacity limits in the restrooms.
“Film crews employ many, many more crew members and artists than would be involved in a typical livestream from a performing arts center,” says Tammy Fox, BPAC’s executive director. She is thankful for a current 10-day comedy special shoot at the venue by Just For Laughs (JFL), but canceled all concerts for winter and spring. She says the best the venue can hope for is the ability to host an outdoor concert series in its 400-seat plaza this summer.
The 400-capacity Horseshoe Tavern pivoted to being a “video sound studio six months ago and for whatever reason the province won’t recognize us as such,” says Cohen, noting that the audio-visual set up he now uses to produce livestreams is no different than what film and television productions do. The venue also has followed mask requirements, installed plexiglass on stage, staggered arrivals and implemented a thorough cleaning regimen and employee check-in system, he says.
“Maybe it’s time to just give up,” says Cohen. “We are beyond frustrated — not at having to lockdown, we agree 100% with citywide stay-at-home orders in a health emergency — but we’re fed up with the government treating live music venues with discrimination.”