Advocates for Ontario’s live music and performing arts industries say a lack of clarity in the provincial reopening plan puts their futures at risk.
Provincial and municipal leaders, including Toronto Mayor John Tory, met virtually Friday with members of the arts and culture sector eager to welcome live audiences back into venues.
The resounding message: they need financial support, a detailed timeline and far more than a week’s notice from health authorities to reopen.
Come From Away actor Ali Momen, speaking on behalf of the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, said such short timelines are “crippling our hard-hit sector further by crushing our ability to prudently plan.”
On Thursday, the province dropped details on moving into Step 2 less than a week before it will take effect. The changes allow outdoor live theatre and concert events to move forward at 25 per cent capacity, among other restrictions, starting June 30.
Beyond that, little guidance has been offered for the prospects of Step 3, which could begin in July.
“So far, we have received little indication on what our reopening path looks like and our projects require months to prepare for,” Momen told the meeting.
“While we were struggling to obtain detailed reopening information for outdoor venues until yesterday — six days before reopening — visionary cities like New York and London have put arts and culture at the centre of their recovery plans, giving their producers a long-term critical path towards full capacity return indoors.”
‘We need a seat at the table’
The actor, who is also seeking an Ontario Liberal party nomination in Toronto’s Parkdale-High Park riding, said Ontario is the only province that hasn’t provided capacity information for a future reopening of indoor theatres.
“We are constantly seeing decisions made on our behalf without an understanding of how we work,” he added.
“We need a seat at the table. Let us consult on our reopening just like other sectors have been invited to do.”
Similar frustrations echo throughout the live entertainment industry.
Torquil Campbell, a member of rock band Stars, actor and playwright, said the theatre community has found it impossible to budget for a reopening without any idea of launch dates.
“When you have no sense of a plan, how can you possibly know whether you should hire people, get insurance, all those things that go along with making something happen?” he said in a recent interview.
“I don’t expect our public health officers to know what’s required for theatre to reopen. But if they don’t know, they should ask someone who does. Start to make plans because I have no idea how they think they’re going to revive cities, urban nightlife and the tourism industry if there’s no performing arts in this country.”
Complicating matters is the rate of Ontario’s vaccinations, which has picked up as more people get their second dose. The province set a single-day vaccination record Friday while fewer than 300 new COVID-19 cases were reported.
More than 76 per cent of adults in Ontario have received one vaccine dose, while 29 per cent are fully vaccinated with two doses, meaning the province has already met targets to enter the third step of its reopening plan.
However, provincial health officials say they won’t move into Step 3 before “approximately 21 days” after the start of the
Shaun Bowring, owner of Toronto venue the Garrison and co-founder of the Canadian Independent Venue Coalition, said he’s been calling on the province to draft a reopening model for concert venues for the past year.
He said that would have offered a guide that could be modified according to the pandemic.
But without it, he’s joined many others in the music industry who’ve chosen a somewhat arbitrary date of Oct. 1 as their reopening target, and are booking bands and selling tickets for shows in the fall that may or may not happen.
“That’s our best guesstimate because we’re not getting information,” Bowring said.
“We’ve kind of determined that if everyone’s had their two vaccines by the end of August, it gives a month more for stragglers and for uptake of the actual vaccine.”
Jesse Kumagai, chair of the Canadian Live Music Association, told leaders at the Ontario meeting on Friday that reaching full capacity at concert venues after Step 3 is “something we believe we can and should be able to do” if taking the lead from other regions that are “more advanced” in the return to live events.
‘Our industry is facing a perfect storm’
The live music industry organization also emphasized an urgency for financial support to address the end of two federal subsidies in September, when most concerts and music festivals will still be months away from happening.
“Our industry is facing a perfect storm,” said Erin Benjamin, president of the CLMA.
“We’re optimistic that some businesses in our sector may see a modest rise in revenue as we reopen very gradually. (But) many of our members are facing a near-certain financial crisis that will hit our industry especially hard this fall in winter.”
Some Canadian bands, including Toronto rock act the Beaches, have surrendered to uncertainty.
“I think there’s going to be no plan,” said lead singer Jordan Miller.
“I think that all of a sudden things will be opened up. And it’s up to us to be at a place where we can have a good live set and (are) ready.”
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