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'Ontario is closed for business:' Concert, theatre organizers face new COVID hurdles

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TORONTO — Advocates in Ontario's live music industry say upcoming shows big and small hang in the balance as they face provincial restrictions that are tougher on concert and live theatre venues than other entertainment spaces.

Many in the province's live music and performing arts industries say they're being treated unfairly as new rules that go into effect on Jan. 31 hold many of their venues at 50-per cent capacity until at least mid-March.

Meanwhile, other entertainment spaces including cinemas, casinos and restaurants have been told to anticipate being allowed to host a full house by Feb. 21.

The outcry came as Billie Eilish became the latest major artist to postpone shows planned for Toronto and Montreal citing "local guidelines and an abundance of caution."

The "Bad Guy" singer broke the news on Twitter, promising to offer up new dates for scuttled stops in Montreal on Feb. 15 and Toronto on Feb. 16.

Erin Benjamin, head of the Canadian Live Music Association, says live venues and their owners are confused by provincial policies that deem it safe to eat maskless in a packed restaurant but less safe to gather masked for a concert.

"The application of the policy announced by the premier (is) really hard to understand when you look at what is allowed to be open at 100 per cent and what is not," she said.

"I think the growing sentiment is that Ontario is closed for business."

Benjamin said she worries the ever-changing rules could squelch a raft of upcoming concerts, from big-ticket shows led by international superstars to smaller club events by U.S. artists who may decide it's not worth the cost of entering Canada to play a half-full venue.

"The idea of doing business in Ontario is so uncertain that folks are just not interested in constantly trying to navigate the rules," she said.

"We're hearing things like outright cancellations and conversations (on future tour dates) being paused until 2023."

Besides Eilish, big names that have already moved upcoming Canadian tour dates from the first half of the year include Dua Lipa who was slated to play Montreal and Toronto in February. Those shows are now set for July 25 and 27.

Upcoming acts include Elton John, whose farewell tour dates on March 12 and 13 were already postponed twice due to COVID-19 and fall just before full capacity is permitted on March 14.

Live Nation acknowledged ongoing uncertainty in an emailed statement.

"The changes in regulations may result in the postponement of some shows. All ticket-holders will be contacted directly, and more information will follow," the company said.

In the theatre sector, many of the province's companies have chosen to sit out the first several months of the year in hopes that spring will bring certainty.

"The theatre sector is so exhausted from false starts," said Mitchell Marcus, chief executive of Toronto's the Musical Stage Company.

"They continue to show, as has been shown so many times in the pandemic, that there isn't fairness for the arts when the government is looking at the reopening strategy."

Some of Ontario's concert halls are planning to push ahead in the coming weeks.

Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music resumes performances at half capacity in early February, with an Aretha Franklin tribute show and Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson on the calendar.

Mervon Mehta, executive director of the institution, said it's important for the non-profit to find a path forward for its donors and supporters, even if its organizers are "scratching our heads" at how provincial leaders drafted the latest guidelines.

"We're glad to open gradually and we want to be cautious ... but let's follow the science; let's not follow the politics," he said.

"That's all we've been asking for all along."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2022.

David Friend, The Canadian Press




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