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COVID-19: Ottawa movie theatres go dark again as some question logic of red-zone closure

The ByTowne Cinema in Ottawa was forced to close permanently last year amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Other movie theatres in town are hoping to avoid the same fate as the city enters Ontario's COVID-19 red zone, which forces them to close again. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Ottawa’s movie theatres have once again closed due to tightening restrictions in the novel coronavirus pandemic as some wonder why other settings are allowed to stay open with limited capacity.

Ottawa entered the red-control zone in Ontario’s COVID-19 framework Friday morning amid surging levels of the coronavirus locally.

Among the revised restrictions for restaurants and bars are limits of 50 per cent of total capacity for indoor dining to a max of 50 patrons at a time.

Read more: Coronavirus paints unclear picture for movie theatres heading into 2021

Movie theatres, however, which were previously allowed 50 people at a time in the orange zone, must now close entirely.

That doesn’t track to Bruce Gurberg, owner of the multiplex Ciné Starz chain in Ontario and Quebec. His cinemas in Orléans and the St. Laurent Shopping Centre must now close while Ottawa attempts to curb the spread of the virus and return to the orange zone.

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But as he looks at restaurants and bars continuing their operations this weekend — some of which have been allowed an early start to patio season — he doesn’t understand why movie theatres can’t be given the same deal.

At Ciné Starz, which runs five or six screens depending on the location, 200-person auditoriums were usually only accommodating 10 or so people per screening.

Given the space requirements and the mandate to wear masks inside when not eating or drinking, Gurberg believes his movie theatre setting isn’t any higher-risk than a restaurant or bar, especially when people are talking while eating or interacting with servers.

“I don’t understand why cinemas are being penalized for this right now,” he tells Global News.

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It’s a similar situation at Landmark Cinemas in Ottawa.

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During the most recent orange zone restrictions, the multiplex chain only opened its 45,000-square-foot Orléans location for limited operations, opting not to run the 100,000-square-foot, 24-screen facility in Kanata based on just a 50-person capacity.

Landmark CEO Bill Walker says the economics of running a multiplex with tight caps on audiences and a lack of new content coming from distributors didn’t make a ton of sense, especially for the operator’s largest theatres in Ontario, when they are used to having thousands of patrons over the course of a Saturday.

While he knows the line has to be drawn somewhere and says he accepts the opinion of medical professionals, Walker also believes putting hard caps on any business regardless of size “just doesn’t make any sense.”

“It’s not calibrating for the types of businesses that are operating,” he says.

Walker and Gurberg are backed up by calls from Ottawa business leaders, who wrote to Premier Doug Ford on Thursday asking for capacity restrictions in all businesses to be tailored to the size of the venue as a percentage, rather than a hard number.

“This supports the physical distancing mandate. In addition, it ensures the percentage of capacity is equal for all businesses. The spread of the virus does not change depending on whether you are at a supermarket or hardware store,” read the letter, signed by the Ottawa Board of Trade and other business groups in the capital.

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The Ontario government initially responded to cinemas’ pleas last summer to set capacity limits on an auditorium basis rather than an entire building, but Walker says there hasn’t been as much movement on the latest regulations.

“We’re advocating, we’re talking, but it’s hard to get someone to listen,” Walker says.

Ontario’s Ministry of Health did not respond to Global News’s request for comment on this story.

Cinemas less risky than restaurants, expert says

Dr. Colin Furness, with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in Toronto, tells Global News that while there’s still a lack of data about transmission in built-form environments, the risk comparison between eating in a restaurant and watching a movie in the cinema is stark.

“I have to say, restaurants are way more dangerous than a movie theatre,” he says. “If the logic is, we’re closing movie theatres but restaurants can stay open, I can’t agree with that.”

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Read more: Movie theatres are starting to reopen — but are they safe?

He points to the dangers of infection for employees at restaurants, who are regularly interacting with maskless patrons, as the major risk with indoor dining.

Movie theatres, on the other hand, have some protections built-in. Having control over temperature, humidity and airflow in the auditorium can aid movie theatres in limiting possible exposure, Furness says.

That’s not to say movie theatres are 100 per cent safe, either. While both Walker and Gurberg note that showtimes are intentionally staggered to avoid exposing other movie-goers, Furness notes that some settings could create “crowding opportunities” around concessions or bathrooms.

Furness says he’d be supportive of theatres opening with “really reduced capacity,” if at all, given the increased threat of variant spread in Ontario’s third wave of the pandemic.

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“I can’t say movie theatres are safe. But I can certainly say, based on everything I know, restaurants are going to be an order of magnitude riskier than a movie theatre,” he says.

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While she has little direct influence on the specifics of provincial measures, Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, said Thursday that all settings can be lower- or higher-risk for transmission dependent on physical distancing, mask use, the size of the space and the time spent inside.

“If someone is having a quick meal and they otherwise wear their mask when they’re not eating, that may be less risk than somebody who’s keeping their mask off in close contact that same distance in a theatre where it’s a longer period of time. It will vary,” Etches said. Under all levels of the provincial framework, masks are mandatory in both settings whenever a patron is not eating or drinking.

Etches acknowledged, however, that as the coronavirus vaccination campaign continues, she’s “open to conversations” about how public health guidance and restrictions at the provincial level could be revised.

“We do need to adapt these measures as we get into levels of immunity.”

She pointed to total capacity as a reliable indicator that could guide these restrictions in the future.

“How big is the restaurant, how big is the cinema? These kinds of approaches where we think about the ability of places to maintain physical distancing between people, that’s probably a fundamental piece. These are the things we could look at in terms of future modifications.”

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Inconsistencies in measures between businesses have raised tensions elsewhere in Canada. Frustrated cinema owners in British Columbia pivoted to reopen as bars earlier this year when similar restrictions forced theatres to close but kept restaurants open for business.

Walker said he understands it’s a “delicate time” to debate restriction measures, but he is confident in Landmark’s safety protocols. He believes cinemas aren’t significant contributors to the transmission of the virus, and that forcing theatres to close is more psychological than practical.

“We’re quite confident that we have actually nothing to do with the transmission of the virus, but it’s that symbolism of venues like movie theatres being open leads to people taking more liberties on their own socializing and that ultimately leads to some of the outcomes we’re dealing with,” he says.

Ottawa Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard only shows one recorded coronavirus outbreak in a theatre, cinema or live entertainment venue. Eight people tested positive and one person died in connection with that outbreak, according to OPH’s reporting.

Read more: Cineplex willing to turn movie theatres into coronavirus vaccine sites, CEO says

Some 15 outbreaks have been connected to restaurants and bars and four outbreaks have been tied to recreation settings, meanwhile, accounting for more than 100 COVID-19 cases.

Apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult here as the number of cinemas in Ottawa is likely far below the number of gyms and restaurant settings.

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A Cineplex Cinemas location in Ottawa closed last September after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus.

Cineplex Cinemas provided no comment to Global News for this story beyond indicating that it is following public health directives and operating according to provincial regulations.

Audiences will return if cinemas survive, operators believe

At the Mayfair Theatre in Old Ottawa South, the fourth round of COVID-19 closures come just over a year after the pandemic forced staff to shutter the single-screen independent cinema.

Owner John Stafford says that, at the time, staff at the Mayfair expected they would be shuttered for a few weird weeks as the novel coronavirus blew through the capital.

But even not knowing the extent to which the novel coronavirus pandemic would reshape reality, Stafford says he had an eerie feeling reminiscent of some of the classic movies the theatre has become known for in the past 89 years.

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“It just felt like we were in a weird sci-fi horror film,” Stafford says of closing up that first night a self-imposed lockdown, only for the province to officially shut things down a few days later.

“It really felt dreadful.”

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The procedure for closing down has since become familiar for the Mayfair Theatre, Stafford says, as staff go through the motions of getting the word out and postponing advance ticket purchases.

During the downtimes, Stafford says the Mayfair has subsisted on support from its loyal audience, who have paid to sponsor seats, post custom messages on the marquee as well as bought gift cards and memberships.

“The only thing that keeps us going is patrons who go the extra mile,” he says.

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Not all cinemas in Ottawa have been so fortunate. The ByTowne Cinema announced it would close for good late last year after the coronavirus pandemic bled the downtown indie theatre dry.

Stafford says the ByTowne had always been a friendly competitor to the Mayfair, and that it was sad to see the loss of an institution in Ottawa’s film scene.

But it’s also a reminder, he says, for patrons of all industries to show their support for struggling businesses while they’re around.

“When that happens, it gets people’s attention. It drives home that this is a serious event happening on our planet and businesses need all the help they can get,” he says. “I think people realized that, if you love a place, be sure to show them a bit of money every once in a while.”

But with his theatres unable to open, Gurberg isn’t sure how he’s supposed to cater to movie lovers during the hard times.

Even though showings for only a handful of people were bringing in sub-par revenues, Gurberg says Ciné Starz only stayed open in a bid to boost confidence for movie-goers in the pandemic precautions he and other theatre operators invested in.

Without the ability to welcome even a handful of people in to see a movie, Gurberg says he’s missing out on the word of mouth that he believes will be key to the return of cinema after the pandemic.

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“I feel we’ve done a yeoman’s job keeping our customers and our staff safe. Allow me to at least show the public they can go to a movie and not feel worried or threatened,” he says.

Stafford credits wage subsidies and support from the Ontario and federal governments with helping to keep the Mayfair afloat. While Gurberg says that he supports relief for his theatre’s landlords and his employees, he’d also like to see direct support for theatres to ensure movie lovers have a place to return after the pandemic.

“I’m going to do my best to stay in business,” he says.

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