Movie theatre owners ‘dumbfounded’ to be left out of Manitoba’s proposal for relaxed COVID-19 rules

Proposed changes to pandemic restriction rules in Manitoba over the next few weeks could see almost all businesses allowed to reopen, with expanded capacity limits — except for indoor theatres.

Both cinemas and live theatres would would remain closed under the proposed changes, along with bingo halls and casinos, with no reopening date in the foreseeable future.

Bill Walker, the CEO of Landmark Cinemas Canada, says he can’t understand or accept the Manitoba government’s decision to categorize theatres as high-risk venues.

“Honestly, we are offended. It feels like we have not done our job of communicating clearly the health and safety measures we operate with,” he said.

“And quite frankly, I feel someone in government is not doing their job of opening up their mind to really look at this.”

Landmark operates movie theatres in Manitoba in Winnipeg, Brandon and Winkler, employing hundreds of part-time employees in the province, Walker said.

He maintains cinemas were basically designed for a pandemic. 

Walker says movie theatres are well designed to operate safely during a pandemic, with measures to control crowd sizes, distancing and traffic flow. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

They offer reserved seats that face one direction, quiet auditoriums with high ceilings, predictable traffic patterns set around scheduled show times that can be staggered, and the ability to distance customers by seating them in every second row several seats apart, he notes.

Movie theatres in Manitoba, and across the country, shut down last spring during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Manitoba’s case numbers dropped in the summer, cinemas were allowed to reopen, but had to shut down again in November, as numbers spiked and Manitoba moved to the red, or critical, level of its pandemic response system.

Landmark’s theatres in Alberta and B.C. also remain closed for now. Some in Ontario are open, while those in Saskatchewan never closed.

Walker says cinemas operated extremely safely when they reopened following the initial pandemic shutdown.

The Movie Theatre Association of Canada claims despite more than one million Canadians visiting movie theatres in the first and second waves of the pandemic, there have been zero reported instances of transmission or outbreaks associated with going to see a movie.

Walker says while theatre owners support public health measures, and agree there was a time for cinemas to be closed, they feel they are being unduly punished now.

“We aren’t saying we have to open today.  But to not allow us to reopen in the next few weeks seems so flippant. Not to mention the economic cost, and getting hundreds of part-timers back to work,” he said.

He says cinema owners are “dumbfounded,” when Manitoba’s current rules and proposed changes would allow businesses like gyms, children’s recreation facilities and restaurants to welcome customers.

“I can’t understand it. If there is logic, I would love to hear it.”

Landmark Cinemas CEO Bill Walker says the movie theatre industry is being unduly punished, with no scheduled reopening in the province’s list. (Landmark Cinemas)

Walker says letters have been sent through the movie theatre association to the province to highlight the industry’s protocols and track record. He says while there was some communication before the first reopening, there has been no response this time around.

Walker admits making his case through the media isn’t his first choice, but he feels it’s his only option now.

“That seems to be the only way we will get some traction — actually engaging our customers and the broader population. Because none of this makes sense and I am sure so many of them would agree,” said Walker.

The industry is encouraging theatregoers to fill out the province’s online survey on proposed rule changes, to let officials know what their experience was like after the first lockdown.

Crowded, closed places present highest risk: Atwal

Walker says the bigger players like Landmark and Cineplex, which have 90 per cent of the Canadian moviegoing market, are losing millions of dollars a month, but surviving with wage and rent subsidies.

He worries about the small independent theatres in rural Manitoba, where owners have sunk their entire personal savings into their business.

Manitoba’s acting deputy chief provincial public health officer says not everything can reopen at the same time, and some situations are still risky.

“Large gatherings of people for long periods of time present the greatest risk for COVID-19 transmission,” Dr. Jazz Atwal said at a Friday news conference. 

“We need to continue to avoid activities that are known to cause the greatest risk, such as crowded places, closed places and close-contact settings.”

But Walker wonders why cinemas can’t open at a reduced capacity, like other businesses can.

“There has to be a construct under which you would allow theatres to open. If you don’t like our previous protocols, engage, talk to us and let us understand that.

“We are perfectly equipped to open safely and that’s why it is so frustrating.”

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