British Columbia

B.C. music industry feeling left behind by lingering COVID-19 restrictions

Unlike restaurants that have no capacity limits, live music venues can only be half full. Industry players say the show is struggling to go on.

"It's tough to make a go of it at 50 per cent capacity," says theatre owner

An employee changes the marquee at the Rickshaw Theatre in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. Like many in the music industry, the owner of the venue, located in the city's Downtown Eastside, has been hit hard by long months of pandemic shut downs and venue restrictions. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When the provincial government announced its B.C. Restart plan back in May, Mo Tarmohamed saw it as an opportunity to get his business back on track. 

Like many in the music industry, the owner of the Rickshaw Theatre had been hit hard by long months of being mostly shut down by the pandemic. 

Upon hearing the government's plans, Tarmohamed booked a number of shows for September and a bunch more for October. 

But the fourth wave hit, and restrictions stayed. 

Unlike restaurants that have no capacity limits, live music venues can only be half full. Concert goers must be seated and are not allowed to dance. Masks must be worn, except when eating or drinking. 

Because of the financial ramifications of capacity limits, the Rickshaw had to cancel nine of 12 shows in September. Tarmohamed says the lingering restrictions are simply not sustainable. 

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"In October, I've had to cancel five sold-out shows because we sold at our capacity and not at the 50 per cent which is now mandated to us until further notice," he said.

"So it's had a huge impact on our business. It's tough to make a go of it at 50 per cent capacity. Our businesses just cannot go on indefinitely, hamstrung the way we have been."

Mo Tarmohamed, owner of the Rickshaw Theatre, is hopeful that restrictions on gatherings will ease by Oct. 24 when only fully vaccinated people can access certain events and services. Until then, people with one dose are permitted to enter these spaces. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Musicians hurting too

With the summer festival circuit in the rearview mirror, live performances at indoor venues become a crucial source of revenue for touring musicians in the fall and winter months.

But limitations on audience capacity are posing challenges. While live performances at restaurants and small concerts can continue, larger events, which represent significant paydays for musicians, are falling by the wayside. 

Vancouver musician Dan Mangan was set to announce a Canadian tour this week, but it's been delayed until next year. Sadé Awele, another Vancouver musician, said she had to cancel a show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre this weekend because of the restrictions.

Kevvy Maher, singer for the band Fake Shark, agrees some COVID-19 measures should remain in place, but thinks they do not need to be so restrictive.

Kevvy Maher, singer for the band Fake Shark, says the 50 per cent capacity limitation for concerts seems "a little ridiculous" now that people attending venues are vaccinated. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"It feels like we're winging it as far as restrictions go," he said. "It just seems strange that you can't stand still in front of some musicians playing, but if you are seated in that same area and have a steak dinner in front of you, then that's fine?"

"Fifty per cent capacity does seem a little ridiculous, especially now that you have to have your vaccine pass to get in," he added. "I feel like it should be more like 70 per cent capacity can go in there. We're all adults who can decide that on our own, I think, especially if we're vaccinated."

'You gotta put on your mask and you gotta sit down'

For musicians, restrictions not only mean fewer attendees at a venue, but also less engagement during a show.

Vancouver R&B artist Krystle Dos Santos, who plays regularly at Guilt & Company in Gastown, recently had to enforce the no-dancing rule during a show.

"I said, 'gosh, I wish you guys could come dance with me,' and somebody stood up, without a mask and I said, 'I'm sorry, you gotta put on your mask and you gotta sit down,'" she said.

"I have to find humour in it. It sucks, but if you don't announce those kinds of things, I think the venue could be at risk."

R&B singer Krystle Dos Santos currently performs regularly at a venue in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood, and says while it is a challenge not to encourage patrons to dance with her, she wants to do her part to keep everyone in the space safe. (Rebecca Roberts)

Caroline Colijn, a mathematics professor at Simon Fraser University who works on COVID-19 modelling, says she wonders why dancing in particular has been targeted. 

"It's not clear to me why dancing would be a different risk than other physical activities taking place indoors if everyone's vaccinated," she said. 

"Masks, ventilation, rapid testing could add layers of protection to [that]. But I think we do our best to try to reduce transmission."

Musicians and venues eye Oct. 24

The requirement to be double-vaccinated to attend events, dine at restaurants, exercise at gyms and more will come into effect on Oct. 24.

In a statement, the Ministry of Health says the B.C. vaccine card was instituted so that easing restrictions on gatherings could be possible.

"The decision to allow easing restrictions depends on a number of factors, such as trends and absolute numbers of people vaccinated, cases counts, hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and characteristics of the virus that is circulating," they said.

"We are continually assessing these factors to see when restrictions should be eased or increased."

LISTEN | Artists, venue owners lament strict COVID-19 restrictions on live shows: