The memes were right.
Our fall plans are meeting the Delta variant – and what was supposed to be a busy live entertainment season is now uncertain. And with the newly announced vaccine passport system, it’s about to get heated.
Widespread vaccination and once-on-target reopening plans had us looking forward to a celebratory return of music, theatre, dining, sports and culture. But as COVID numbers and hospitalizations rise, we’re stuck in Ontario’s step 3 protocol, aka pandemic purgatory: no longer locked down, but not quite back to normal either.
Pro sports, concerts, movies and festivals are making a comeback, but so are debates about their safety. With many public activities operating for the first time in 16 or 17 months, not everyone feels the same level of comfort. Some are out enjoying films and eating inside restaurants, dancing at clubs or doing the wave at a baseball or soccer game. Others are still reluctant or anxious to be indoors with other people.
Even with anxiety rising about the surging Delta variant and an imminent back-to-school plan with children under 12 still ineligible for the vaccine, many arts organizations and business owners are angling to return to full capacity. That’s where vaccine passports come in – one of the most contentious debates of an already contentious time.
After stalling as long as he could, Premier Doug Ford has instituted a province-wide vaccine policy that will kick in on September 22. That means you’ll have to show proof you’re fully vaccinated in order to go to the movies, concerts, restaurants, gyms, casinos and other spaces public health officials consider high-risk for COVID-19 transmission (religious gatherings and salons are so far exempt).
Now that Ontario will have vaccine passports, the next question is how they will be enforced and whether they will lead to any more restrictions being loosened.
Waiting on guidance from the government, businesses, arts organizations, venues and event organizers have already been negotiating how to step up on their own. With patio weather soon cooling and fall culture bookings approaching, nobody wants another lockdown. But nobody wants to be targeted either.
“We’re all hopeful that the fall can be saved,” says Erin Benjamin, the president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association (CLMA). “It wasn’t that long ago we were talking about saving the summer.”
That doesn’t mean everything is on hold. It just might look a little different than you expected.
On August 13, Budweiser Stage reopened for three concerts from Arkells. With more than 10,000 people in attendance, it was the first large-scale show since the start of the pandemic, and the band treated it like a victory over the virus – a sign that we were ready to gather again and celebrate together.
“You allowed yourself to be optimistic!” exclaimed the band’s frontman, Max Kerman.
But with the highly contagious Delta variant surging, the prevailing mood, both inside and outside of Canada, is a lot more ambivalent.
Since Arkells Long Weekend, there have been other big outdoor shows – Sam Roberts and Blue Rodeo followed at Budweiser Stage, while CityView Drive-In, the parking lot venue across from Rebel, has transformed from a drive-in concert spot to an outdoor standing-room stage. Next Saturday, the venue will host a hip-hop and R&B showcase for Manifesto Festival featuring local acts Savannah Ré, Notifi, Jahkoy, Charmaine and more.
Those shows are pretty small compared to what’s happening in the United States, where the touring market has opened up in a big way. Venues like Madison Square Garden reopened for shows, while Lollapalooza and Rolling Loud brought back the festival scene.
It was easy to look at the U.S. – which was ahead of Canada in vaccinations before we caught up and overtook them – with jealousy. But our own reopening coincided with a turning in mood there. Major acts like Neil Young blasted large promoters like Live Nation and AEG for throwing events “where thousands congregate and spread.” (About 200 cases were traced to Lollapalooza, which would not qualify as a superspreader event.)
Singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, meanwhile, moved every date on her American tour from indoor to outdoor venues. Others, like Jason Isbell, decided to only play concerts at venues with a mandatory vaccination policy. Some smaller artists have built their own infrastructure for rapid testing at shows.
Touring is the top revenue stream for many musicians, not to mention the most immediately rewarding part of the job, which has left many itching to get back onto the stage. But there are suddenly a lot more variables for them to worry about – including public health.
The Weather Station, whose 2021 album Ignorance is one of the most critically acclaimed records of the year, played their first show back in a festival in Quebec in July.
“We had all just reached our two weeks post-vaccination time and we had a big rehearsal and we were all hugging and feeling so happy,” says Tamara Lindeman, the Toronto singer/songwriter behind the project. “Then we went to play the festival and people were sitting on patios and dancing and it felt so amazing, like ‘Yes, we’re back!’ Then two weeks later, the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] report came out about the Delta variant and it felt like such a blow.”
Specifically, she says, she was caught by the fact that vaccinated people can still get and spread the virus – though it’s much less likely than for unvaccinated people and much less likely they’ll end up in hospital.
Lindeman doesn’t necessarily feel scared or unsafe to play for people, especially if they’re vaccinated. Though breakthrough transmissions are more common than initially thought, the vast majority of people being admitted to hospitals, both in Canada and internationally, are unvaccinated. But there are other risks too: financial ones.
There’s a much bigger chance of concerts being cancelled or postponed. There are also extra costs for COVID tests, which are generally required when crossing borders, and quarantine time if someone tests positive or comes into close contact with someone else who has.
As bandleader, she’s responsible for the financial risk of that for herself and four other people, plus the burden of booking international flights in countries whose border entry policies might change; and making sure all the hotel, vehicle and booking is cancellable. Touring, especially for a working band like the Weather Station (they’ll play Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall on December 4), is already “a knife’s edge” when it comes to margins, she says, and now she has to think about all sorts of unforeseen public liability.
“The financial risk for everyone is so complex,” she says. “Venues, promoters, bands, musicians, booking agents, managers – it’s such an ecosystem that I don’t think people think about. They think of [live music] like a fun frill, but for those of us who are doing it, it’s not a frill. It’s important.”
Venues go local as big acts cancel
Get ready for something you’ve probably gotten used to over the last 17 months: more postponements and cancellations.
Though Ontario has surpassed the 75 per cent vaccination goal that should have triggered the removal of step 3 restrictions – when it comes to music, that’s 25 per cent capacity for nightclubs, 50 per cent for indoor concert venues and bars and 75 per cent for outdoor concerts – Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore announced that we would stay in this phase while we get ready for a “tough fall and winter.”
Music venues have been frustrated since the beginning of the pandemic at the lack of prior notice from the government throughout the various stages of reopening. Rarely do they have a chance to plan ahead, which is crucial for concert booking. Twice, they’ve even had to shut down virtual and livestream performances.
Shaun Bowring, owner of the Garrison and Baby G and a leader of the Love You Live Toronto venue operator group, says most spots were counting on being able to open at or near 100 per cent capacity by October. It looks unlikely that will happen.
In the meantime, concert calendars are filled with local and Canadian acts – including the Garrison’s Alive reopening series, which will start in late September. The nightclub Coda reopened with an all-local series called Reboot. And the Axis Club, the new identity of the former Mod Club, will also highlight local acts with the All Axis Festival, which starts September 9 and will run in a hybrid in-person/online format.
This week (September 2) at Budweiser Stage, Maroon 5 will become the first major American act to play in Canada since the pandemic started, which will require them to submit proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test. There are big international acts booked all over the city – from Justin Bieber to Sepultura – from September until well into 2022, but if we’re still in step 3 by then, there’s a very good chance they get postponed or cancelled.
“The current indefinite step 3 policy will result in mass touring concert postponements and mega cancellations throughout the fall,” warns Jeff Cohen, owner of the Horseshoe Tavern and concert promotion company Collective Concerts. “It’s killing off the live music industry [in Toronto].”
Indoor venues are currently allowed to operate at 50 per cent capacity, but other restrictions like distanced seating and reserved tables mean the number is often much smaller than that. The Horseshoe has welcomed the audience back for recent concerts (this Saturday, they’ll have comedian Shaun Majumder and later acts like the Manvils, Falcon Jane and UIC), but with tables filling the famous checkerboard floor, Cohen says the real capacity is something closer to 17-23 per cent.
Collective Concerts was one of the first out of the gate to announce a major touring concert – Dinosaur Jr. at Danforth Music Hall on September 9 – but now that show has been postponed indefinitely and Cohen warns there will be more to come. Most of the concerts being booked at indoor venues are being sold as if they’re at 100 per cent capacity, and many of the acts are signing guarantees that require full or near-full capacity venues.
“No non-Canadian is gonna cross the border and go through rigorous testing protocols, risking having a crew member/artist test positive while in Ontario/Canada, and then having to potentially quarantine, for Doug Ford’s minuscule 17 to 23 per cent indoor venue cap,” he says. “Agents, managers and artists are instead re-routing to Buffalo, where they can play shows at 100 per cent capacity. [In the] short-term, Toronto is disappearing from most 2021 and 2022 music routing, which has long-term negative effects.”
When major tours were postponed due to COVID, some – like Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill anniversary tour and Green Day, Weezer and Fall Out Boy’s Hella Mega Tour – dropped their Canadian dates. Many in the music industry are unsure how long they can continue with capacity restrictions or worse.
“There are some very concerned, very fearful folks in our world,” says Benjamin. “If we go through something like another lockdown, we’re going to lose infrastructure. If the wage subsidy and other emergency relief programs end in mid-fall like they’re scheduled to, there are many who won’t be able to hold on. More venues are going to close.”
In the stage world, Mirvish, the city’s biggest theatre company, has decided to wait until December to launch its new season. Producers are hoping that time, along with their own announced vaccine policy, will let them run at 75 per cent to 100 per cent capacity as in the UK and many parts of the U.S. They’ve taken a loss for their current show, Blindness, an in-person audio performance that allows only 50 people per performance. But it’s an experiment, partially as a way to get audiences used to indoor theatre again.
“You can’t experiment on a million bucks a week,” explains Mirvish’s John Karastamatis. “That’s what it costs to put on a show at most of our theatres. You can’t make that work if you’re taking back $500,000 a week in box office revenue. We need a minimum of 75 per cent just to break even.”
Will the vaccine passports work?
Full capacity might seem like a big ask with COVID case numbers reaching their highest rates since before widespread vaccination.
But many are arguing we should be looking more closely at how many of the new cases are unvaccinated people (the last few daily counts have been about 5 to 1) and who is being hospitalized with serious illness. Over the last four months in Toronto, nearly 99 per cent of COVID patients in hospital were not fully vaccinated.
Though vaccinated people can still get and spread the virus with a similar viral load, the chances are significantly lower – and much less that it would be serious. It will likely be years before COVID becomes endemic, so we will have to learn to live with it. And vaccine passports are one way to return to crowded events with reduced risk. It could also convince people to get the jab, as it has in B.C. and Quebec.
Despite his earlier warning, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer even hinted that businesses with vaccination policies could eventually remove capacity limits. “If everyone in that environment is immunized, that’s a very low-risk event,” Moore said last week.
Under mounting pressure, Ontario is finally introducing vaccine passports – a needed policy for many who were in favour of the policies but who have felt hesitant to institute them for fear of abuse from people who loudly and vehemently disagree. But how it works will also be crucial.
For weeks, restaurateur Jen Agg has been dealing with COVID-denying protesters harassing diners at Bar Vendetta on Dundas West. After the story blew up online, including tweets from celebrities Dan Levy and Barry Jenkins, mayor John Tory said he was “disappointed and dismayed” but that he couldn’t direct the police, who are treating the targeted disruption as a peaceful protest.
Jacob Wharton-Shukster, owner of Chantecler, has also spoken up in favour of vaccine mandates and faced targeted harassment: “Repeated phone calls, review bombs, DMs, several pieces of literature sent to me,” he lists.
Neither he nor Agg have actually instituted vaccine policies – they’re both only open for outdoor dining to keep staff safe – but just having a public opinion was enough to bring the anti-vaxxers to their doors. Now vaccinations will be required to eat indoors (though not on a patio), but will it be up to already low-paid and precarious restaurant workers to enforce it?
“The issue that we’ve been dealing with is a lack of sensible government policy,” he says. “It’s not appropriate to make individuals, private citizens or businesses have to make these decisions on our own. That [left] us open to anger, vitriol and ugliness from COVID deniers.”
Wharton-Shukster is happy there will finally be a provincial mandate, but says Ford’s “determination to do as little as possible” has already done a ton of damage. Letting anti-vaxxers intimidate independent businesses increases their power and outsizes their voice.
“We’re pretending this is a significant percentage of the community,” he says. “They’re not, they’re just very loud. We shouldn’t be basing our policy on a small number of people. They’re statistically irrelevant.”
According to a recent CLMA survey, at least 84 per cent of people in the music industry support vaccine passports, but many were waiting on the government to bring in a policy. Live Nation and MLSE (which runs Scotiabank Arena and many of the city’s pro sports teams) announced vaccine requirements, opening the door for smaller promoters.
The Garrison’s Bowring appreciates “the big players” taking a leadership role, but says there needs to be a government system that provides tools for local businesses to enforce mandates without leaving staff open to abuse. It has to be standardized, with uniform enforcement across the province. That takes the onus out of each venue’s hands.
For now, the province will use vaccine receipts (paper or PDF) and photo ID as proof but by October 22 they’ll launch an “enhanced vaccine certificate” that will take the form of a unique QR code you can hold in a new app or a digital wallet. Until then, there is risk of forgery – something that cities like New York have been battling with.
Next week, TIFF will become one of the first major events in Toronto to require vaccination for all screenings. Many will be watching to see how it goes. Currently, there is not a ton of data on how vaccine mandates have worked when it comes to stopping the spread – though all the science suggests it’s much safer than mingling vaccinated and unvaccinated crowds.
Many in events and hospitality are crossing their fingers that it works and that they can use it to argue for increased capacity – or at the very least, to avoid another lockdown. For now, capacity limits and mask mandates will remain, but a lot of people will be watching the numbers very closely.
Outside of the COVID box
There’s always going to be some amount of risk involved in any cultural event, but COVID is a variable that’s hard to predict and often hard to understand. Many organizations and promoters are consulting with doctors and scientists, but there is only so far you can look ahead – especially considering government reopening plans that are often announced, postponed or changed at the last minute.
While some venues are hoping vaccine mandates could eventually mean business as usual, others are trying to build new experiences.
For Nina Aquino, artistic director at Factory Theatre, it’s a chance to experiment. The theatre company’s upcoming season is called Shift, a mix of in-person, audio and virtual performances that’s meant to cover all the possibilities of theatre in this strange in-between existence. It’s fertile ground – so much that they’ve actually commissioned more original work than ever before.
“There are so many uncertainties and I’m tired of pivoting. I never want to hear that word ever again,” she laughs. “I don’t want to respond to the damn virus anymore. I want to embrace what the possibilities can be for the future – with or without this fucking pandemic.”
At the Music Gallery, new artistic director Sanjeet Takhar is thinking beyond government policies and looking at how to work together as an industry “to set shared standards of what safety, care and accountability looks like going forward.”
“Our events and programming cross so many intersections (age, race, economic status, ability) that we’re cautious about how we open up,” she says.
It’s important for everyone to feel at ease at a show – which is something that should transcend COVID. That will be built into their annual X Avant Festival, which takes place October 13-17 online and at 918 Bathurst, which will operate at 20 per cent capacity until at least 2022.
“We’re working on solutions to keep tickets aside for marginalized members (due to limited capacity), therapeutic rooms for people who need space, and giving options of how to engage with others including indoor and outdoor drink options.”
Nobody’s quite sure what will happen over the next few months, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make plans.