TORONTO — Ontario concert venue owners are demanding more transparency from the provincial government after the latest round of COVID-19 restrictions outlawed live streaming shows with little advance notice.
For the second time this year, club owners say they've been left frustrated and confused as the province told them to sideline virtual shows while other industries operate with less strict precautions.
"The government is picking winners and losers without any logic," said Jeff Cohen, owner of the Horseshoe Tavern, a downtown Toronto venue that packed in crowds before the pandemic but turned to live streams over the past year to stay in business.
"The moment we try to do something proactive... we're just getting hit on the head with a rubber mallet."
Doug Ford's "emergency brake" plan, introduced on Thursday, prohibits virtual shows in empty concert halls for the next four weeks. That's left some in the live music industry frustrated, pointing out shoppers are still permitted to wander malls while TV and movie productions continue rolling in film studios.
Since last year, Cohen has been chasing ways to keep the lights on at the Horseshoe while supporting Canadian musicians.
Last August, he launched the Horseshoe Hootenanny, a live streaming concert series that went dark when Ontario's leaders unveiled stricter health guidelines late last year, which made it against the rules to keep the series running.
After dipping into government funding, Cohen recently got the live streaming series back on its feet shortly before the Ford government tightened restrictions again as COVID-19 cases spiked.
The Horseshoe's virtual concerts originally set for April have all been pushed to May, including dates for the Trews, Terra Lightfoot and Hawksley Workman.
All of that would be logical to Cohen if he didn't see the province making special exceptions for other industries.
"I'm a prudent guy, so I'm like, 'OK, we can't live stream.' But you can stand in line at a retail store that's non-essential to buy a skirt?" Cohen said.
"Like, that makes no...sense at all."
Arts journalist and broadcaster Garvia Bailey faced similar confusion Tuesday when she learned a music education event she was set to host at Ripley's Aquarium in Toronto was postponed.
The children's show "Making Waves" had promised 45 schools a "virtual field trip" Wednesday that featured both music and musings about fish.
Bailey was booked as host, and safety plans included face masks and Plexiglas dividers between performers, which included 11 musicians.
But it took several days of scouring the provincial rules for transparency before organizers learned on Tuesday morning that the live stream scheduled for Wednesday would have to be pushed to a later date.
"It's just so disheartening when you go through all of the work that I know that these guys and myself (are doing to) make it really fun for the kids," Bailey said.
"It's so twisted and in a time when it when we're all so hungry for clarity — like give us some clarity, give us some direction, like give us some leadership."
Lisa Zbitnew, the co-owner of Toronto's Phoenix Concert Theatre, said she supports the government's health measures, but didn't understand why live music seemed to be getting short shrift.
Since film and TV shoots are moving ahead, she wondered how a production crew inside an empty concert hall was any different than one shooting in a studio.
"It's upsetting that for some reason the music sector is treated a little bit like a pariah," she said.
"We're not suggesting we get to do anything that others can't do. We just always seem to be at the end of the queue."
David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said the distinction is that film and TV producers have been "very strict on their investment of testing and protocols" while virtual streaming events haven't made the "same type of protective investments, which does cost money."
"It is an ongoing endeavour whereas in the virtual arts it's sometimes very much put together on that time," Williams said in a media conference.
Williams also pointed to limitations on the activities of cast and crew, while virtual concerts can have "a number of people on the stage at the same moment, sometimes in very close proximity."
Erin Benjamin, chief executive of the advocacy organization Canadian Live Music Association, said enduring another shutdown on short notice has added to an emotionally and financially gruelling year for the music industry.
The latest restrictions come only a few months after similar measures were enacted in January.
"We're very understanding of what government is attempting to achieve right now, and we are 100 per cent for keeping people safe," said Benjamin.
But she added: "The constant navigating (of) changes to restrictions has become a full-time job for these people."
Mary Stewart, general manager of Hugh's Room, said it's been "confusing" to understand the province's health guidelines.
Her small, Toronto west-end venue was forced to postpone its live stream to mark the 45th-anniversary of the Band's iconic concert the Last Waltz, leaving a group of local blues and roots musicians in the lurch.
"Artists have a lot of expenses to be able to maintain their craft (and) they don't have a lot of people sort of rallying for them in terms of performance equity," she said.
"It feels like they're sort of being forgotten."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2021.
David Friend, The Canadian Press