Nova Scotia

Restaurants lose holiday income, arts events shrink as COVID-19 restrictions set to tighten

The province's theatre industry says the new rules will mean a loss of revenue with fewer ticket sales at a key time of year.

New public health rules state arts performances can only have 50 per cent of the facility's capacity

Neptune Theatre in Halifax will only be able to seat a maximum of 150 people at its 2 December shows beginning Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Restaurants in Halifax are losing holiday income, and arts groups across Nova Scotia are cutting ticket numbers or cancelling shows, amid a COVID-19 outbreak and the return of restrictions.

Physical distancing and capacity restrictions are scheduled to come into effect Friday at 9 a.m. AT as the province battles a coronavirus outbreak that began at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish and has been linked to cases in Halifax and other communities.

The Omicron variant has also been confirmed in the province, and, on Tuesday, the province said 344 cases have been linked to the St. FX outbreak.

Brendan Doherty, co-owner of the Old Triangle Irish Alehouse in Halifax, said the bar's phone started ringing with cancellations on Monday as the province announced the return to Phase 4 restrictions.

That means, as of Friday, bars and restaurants must have physical distancing between groups, cutting down on how many they can seat, and no more than 20 people per table.

Brendan Doherty, co-owner of the Old Triangle in Halifax, says they'll start counting patrons to make sure they have fewer than 150 people in the establishment. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

"[My world] was being turned upside down again. It felt similar to this time last year actually, just prior to a lockdown," Doherty said Tuesday.

He said they've had "every size" of reservation cancelled for the next few weeks, from a 50-person party Tuesday night to bookings of just a few people. Doherty said not only does this mean thousands of dollars in lost income, but he's had to cut staff hours.

Losing out on the Christmas rush is painful, Doherty said, since it's the last opportunity most bars and eateries have to make money for three months when business slows down in winter.

These restrictions also don't seem to match the reality of the threat this current outbreak poses, Doherty said, when more than 80 per cent of the province is fully vaccinated and there have been no hospitalizations.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said this week that the restrictions are necessary to get a handle on the outbreak, and ensure it does not spread to more vulnerable people who might get very sick.

But "to impose restrictions on a possibility, which then ensures that we have economic difficulty for the next few months just doesn't make sense," Doherty said.

Bill Pratt, who owns multiple restaurants around Halifax, said he's also seen cancellations, but is relieved the industry was not completely shut down.

Both Pratt and Doherty said this will be an especially tough season to weather with the new federal wage subsidies not an option for most local businesses. Hospitality applicants for that program must show average monthly revenue losses of 40 per cent over a year of the pandemic, and a loss of 40 per cent in the current month.

"There's no restaurant out there that can qualify, or stay in business, with a 40 per cent loss," Pratt said. "It was a ludicrous offer."

Sue Uteck is the executive director of the Spring Garden Area Business Association. (CBC)

Retailers and services in the Spring Garden Area Business Association are also reeling, said association executive director Sue Uteck.

The merchants have dealt with months of construction on Spring Garden Road, so limiting the amount of customers in their shops to follow distancing rules is another blow.

"You want to scream from the rooftops," Uteck said Tuesday

'We've been resilient and calm, but it feels edgy now. People are getting tired, the patience factor is no longer there."

Among the new restrictions, arts and culture events must be limited to 50 per cent capacity, with a maximum of 150 people indoors with physical distancing.

Cat MacKeigan, executive director of Theatre Nova Scotia, and Jeremy Webb, artistic director of Halifax's Neptune Theatre, spoke Tuesday with CBC Radio's Maritime Noon about the steps they're taking to get ready for the changes and ensure audience members feel safe.

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Webb said Neptune's two ongoing holiday shows will continue performances, but there will be fewer seats available. The theatre is creating new seating charts and speaking with ticket holders.

"The good news is the shows are going to continue. The bad news is not as many people as we had hoped will get to see them," Webb said.

MacKeigan said similar things are happening in other theatres across the province, including asking people to attend different dates if need be.

MacKeigan said having fewer seats to fill will have a big impact on revenue for all professional and community theatres during one of their busiest months.

Nova Scotia reported 127 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the fifth day in a row the province reported more than 100 daily cases. COVID-19 positive cases haven't been this high since May, during the third wave of the pandemic.

The new restrictions are expected to last at least until January.

Neptune Theatre artistic director Jeremy Webb. (CBC)

"It is a devastating situation not only for numbers, but for the morale of the industry," said Webb. "So while we've been there before, we were hoping not to return, so it is incredibly disappointing."

When asked about any plans to help businesses struggling through the latest restrictions, provincial spokesperson Gary Andrea said the government will continue working with business sectors to gather feedback and understand the impacts on their operations.

"We will use this information to explore options for support. We will continue to monitor the need for support as we move through the next phases of recovery,' he said in an email Tuesday.

The new restrictions will also mean youth drama camps might have to cut the number of participants, MacKeigan said, since they'll only be able to have 20 kids at rehearsal as of Friday.

At least three Cape Breton facilities have also cancelled or postponed shows due to the new rules.

The Savoy Theatre is located at 116 Commercial St in Glace Bay, N.S. (Brent Kelloway/CBC)

Pam Leader, executive director of the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay, said their final three dinner theatre shows are cancelled this week. 

A Jimmy Rankin concert on Friday will be rescheduled to February or March, and an ensemble vocal show on Dec. 29 has been set ahead for the spring. But The Barra MacNeils Christmas show on Saturday has been pushed ahead until next December.

This round of changes hit "the hardest" since she didn't have a lot of time to see them coming, Leader told CBC's Mainstreet Cape Breton, alongside Wesley Colford of the Highland Arts Theatre.

"I just felt really sad, because it's been so great having people back into the theatre. And I just thought 'I wish it was two weeks later,' and we would have gotten through all of the Christmas shows," Leader said.

Colford said they've been able to keep full capacity for Wednesday's Lennie Gallant show, but had to split up Saturday's sold-out Port City show into two shorter events that night.

The New Year's Eve event at the Membertou Trade & Convention Centre featuring The Privateers and High Society has also been cancelled.

Matt Andersen, seen here in 2016, has cancelled 2 shows in Halifax this week due to the COVID-19 outbreak and changing public health restrictions. (Adam Carter/CBC)

A major Christmas concert at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium at Dalhousie University in Halifax has also been cancelled, Sonic Concerts announced Tuesday.

Refunds are being offered for The Snowman's Ball: Christmas with Matt Andersen and Friends, which was set for Thursday and Friday.

"Well, Halifax. We almost made it. As much as I wish we were going to be seeing you this weekend, we're going to have to hold our breath a little bit longer," Anderson said in a statement.

Eastern Front Theatre has also cancelled its holiday movie night fundraiser at Alderney Landing in Dartmouth, which was scheduled for Friday.

Files from CBC's Maritime Noon, Mainstreet Cape Breton, Jean Laroche, Tom Murphy and Colleen Jones