The masks are coming off. What does that mean for Toronto arts venues?

in a bid to bring back audiences, many theatres are doubling down on COVID safety, just as Ontario ends its mask mandate.

As Ontario ends its mask mandate, theatres and galleries have been left to enforce their own rules

A masked audience attends a movie screening at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre, Sept. 10, 2021. (Ryan Emberley/Getty Images)

In Ontario, the masks are coming off, and starting Monday, face coverings will be optional inside most public spaces. COVID-19 is still with us, of course — a detail the province's chief medical officer of health happened to note when the news was announced earlier this month. But in absence of provincial mandates, arts and entertainment venues — and all businesses, for that matter — have been left to consider yet another pandemic pivot: will they have to establish safety rules of their own?

For some, the answer is already yes. Toronto's Mirvish Productions opens two new shows in April: Room at the Princess of Wales Theatre and Boy Falls from the Sky at the Royal Alexandra. Masking will be in effect at all performances and ticket holders will be asked to prove their vaccination status at the door. A full list of safety protocols is posted to their website, with those rules expected to be in effect through May 1. 

"We still have to acknowledge that the virus has not disappeared. It's still here," says John Karastamatis, director of communications and programming at Mirvish, and he notes how theatres around the world have opted to uphold various safety measures in spite of changing government orders. (In New York, for example, the Broadway theatres are unanimous: patrons must mask up and show proof of a double dose.)

"We look to others to see how they do it. And there seems to be a consensus, not just in Canada. … Theatres have kept these protocols," says Karastamatis. "We're keeping them. And so far, our audience agrees with us."

What safety rules can you expect at Toronto venues?

Who else around Toronto will be hanging on to their COVID safety rules? The National Ballet of Canada is extending vaccine checks and masking through the end of its winter season, which wraps March 27. A rep for the company tells CBC Arts that they'll revisit their approach when the summer program opens in June. The Revue Cinema, a non-profit movie theatre on the Roncesvalles strip, will continue checking vaccine status through April 4; as they explained to CBC's Metro Morning earlier this month, audience feedback prompted them to keep that protocol in place.

Like Mirvish, the city's Soulpepper Theatre Company will uphold vaccine checks and masking, with plans to revisit their guidelines in early May. Pipeline, their first in-person production of the pandemic era, opens April 7. And after consulting with peers in the Toronto theatre community, they decided this approach would best serve patrons and staff. 

It's the same story at Toronto's Crow's Theatre, though in addition to vaccine checks and masking, they will also be holding select performances at half capacity. "Things are constantly changing," says Chris Abraham, artistic director at Crow's. "I think it's appropriate that theatre tries to set its own best practices based on the way its business works."

Blindness was the Toronto's first indoor theatre production of the pandemic. Brought to the city by Mirvish Productions in August 2021, it played to audiences of just 50 people, all masked and physically distanced. (Mirvish Productions)

Survey says: majority of Ontario arts patrons won't attend live events unless vaccine check is in effect

They've also listened to their audience in forming that decision. Last fall, Crow's reopened for performances, and was able to gather insights from ticket-holders. "We had real-time experience of understanding what it was like for audiences to come back," says Abraham. At Mirvish, their customer-service team has listened to requests from ticket-buyers and subscribers. According to Karastamatis, masks and vaccine checks remain important to their visitors. "It offered another level of comfort," he says. "Comfort is very, very important to motivating people to actually come out. So if that's what it takes for people to come to the theatre, that's what it will be." 

Since announcing their new reopening protocols in early March, Soulpepper has been polling patrons in an online survey. So far, their data reveals the audience wants reassurance of one thing: every human in the audience must be fully vaccinated and wearing a mask. According to Gideon Arthurs, Soulpepper's executive director, more than 80 per cent of their respondents have let them know as much. "We are doing our best to gather and understand that collective feeling in real time," he says in an email to CBC Arts.

Since 2020, arts consulting firm WolfBrown has led an international study on the subject of in-person events at theatres, galleries, concert halls, etc. —  and just how comfortable we feel about gathering at these places en masse. The Ontario Arts Council has been a part of the study since its launch in 2020, and its last published report is tied to a November 2021 survey of audience members. Of nearly 5,000 Ontario respondents, 57 per cent said they would only attend an in-person event if there was a vaccination check in effect. 

Is masking enough to bring audiences back?

"Theatre is nothing without the audience," says Arthurs. So it stands to reason that many venues, Soulpepper included, would take whatever measures necessary to assure ticket-buyers of a comfortable experience. 

"The alternative is not to put on any shows, which is not a good alternative," says Karastamatis. And indeed, the Canadian performing arts industry has sustained continued financial loss throughout the pandemic; a Statistics Canada report from January of this year notes the sector's operating revenues sunk 31 per cent in Year One of COVID-19. According to Jacoba Knaapen, executive director for the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts (TAPA), there have been 25,000 cancelled or postponed public performances in Toronto alone, with more than $900 million lost in revenue. "That number is only going to increase," she says. (Her data was gathered through TAPA's ongoing COVID Impact Survey of members. A fourth instalment will be deployed later this month.)

But how do you enforce the rules if you don't have a government playbook to back you up? 

Each company is left to decide on their own. It is a lot to put on organizations, especially after the industry has had it particularly hard for the last two years.- Gideon Arthurs, executive director, Soulpepper Theatre Company

"I'm not a scientist and I'm not a public policy expert," says Abraham. "But I think our discovery is that most theatre audiences — our theatre audiences — are happy to have a slightly slower relaxation of those protocols than the government has proposed. And I think that that's fine."

"Without provincial guidelines we were left to interpret the data, with little time to seek the feedback of artists and audiences, and balancing it all with the desire to get back on the stage and perform to full houses," says Arthurs. "Each company is left to decide on their own. It is a lot to put on organizations, especially after the industry has had it particularly hard for the last two years. It is a lot to understand and a lot to try to balance."

If masking's now optional, are venues allowed to make their own rules?

CBC Arts approached a variety of arts and entertainment venues around Toronto, asking what rules visitors should expect as of March 21. Many did not respond as of press time, but of those who did, several reported that they were still reviewing how best to proceed. That was the case at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum. At the Gardiner Museum, masking is voluntary for visitors as of Monday, though staff and clay class students will continue to wear face coverings through April 5. A rep for Cineplex said that masks will be optional at all their locations in Ontario starting Monday, though staff must still wear them.

If a venue chooses to set their own rules for admittance, that's within their rights, says lawyer Cara Wribel, Director of the Fundamental Freedoms Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. "In general, private businesses can deny service to people as long as they're not doing so on grounds of discrimination that are protected under human rights code," she explains.

"There's scope, I think, for people to challenge it. And I think the scope is broader than it was when there were government mandates in place." But if a patron refuses to follow the rules of a venue, they can be turned away. 

Athena kaitlin trinh (left) and Nabil Traboulsi in Gloria. The play runs to March 20 at Crow's Theatre Streetcar Crowsnest. The Toronto theatre company has been holding select performances of the show at half capacity, a policy they're extending to future productions. (Jeremy Mimnagh/Crow's Theatre)

Other provinces have had an early start tackling this particular challenge, though the approach has been much the same in Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan — occasionally at the risk of blowback. One brief example: as reported by CBC News, when Saskatoon's Broadway Theatre extended their vaccine policy, the decision prompted some heated debate on Facebook.

Based on what he knows about the Crow's audience, Abraham doesn't think the venue's rules will alienate future audience members. "Are there going to be people that would prefer, you know, a back-to-normal experience? I'm sure. But we're not hearing from those people right now."

Few Mirvish subscribers have opted out of upcoming performances, says Karastamatis. "In the past, if people didn't feel safe or if there's something wrong, then we hear immediately and they cancel their tickets. … That hasn't happened this time," he says. "That tells us that we made the right decision."

"Your customers actually make the rules," says Karastamatis, "and our customers have told us."


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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