Double standard in COVID-19 restrictions will kill my business, says cinema owner

Shawn Feener sits alone in the Classic Theater in Grand Falls-Windsor. The theatre is open, but he says he’s losing money because he can’t bring in bigger crowds. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The owner of an independent movie theatre in Grand Falls-Windsor says his business is being pushed to the brink of closure, as he tries to operate under COVID-19 restrictions that he says are harsher than those for bars and restaurants.

While restaurants and lounges are permitted to operate at 50 per cent capacity, cinemas are capped at 50 people no matter the size of the space. Shawn Feener, who owns and operates the Classic Theater, says that limit isn’t sustainable to his bottom line, despite being open and showing old blockbusters and the scattered new release.

“It’s not very hard to do the math,” he said. “I’m making $250 on the door, I’m paying royalties to the movie companies — even though the movies are 30-plus years old, I’ve still gotta pay a royalty. So, I mean, I’m not making nothing on the door.”

Feener said he’s taken extensive safety measures, including signs and directions for foot traffic, hand sanitizer and physical distancing, but hasn’t been able to convince the provincial government to loosen its rules.

“Here at the Classic Theater, we took every measure right to the limit,” he said.

Feener has collected hundreds of signatures on an online petition backing his request for an exemption. He says he’s gotten lots of support from the community. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

He put together a package for the Department of Health and Community Services — that included a video he made on safety measures for his customers — to ask for an exemption. He said he now wants government officials to visit his business and look at his precautions.

“Let’s start categorizing each individual business, let’s start looking at the floor plans,” he said. “Because there’s not two corner stores, there’s not two bars, there’s not two cinemas that got the same floor plan.” 

‘It’s so frustrating’

Feener said the restriction particularly stings because bars and restaurants are operating with more people in much smaller spaces.

“It’s so frustrating, you know, that we’ve done everything. Like the government asked us to close our business because of COVID, and we agreed wholeheartedly,” he said. 

“We do all of this and then the government comes out again and says, ‘OK, now we got to learn to live with COVID.’ OK, we’re living with COVID. We’re doing everything we could possibly do.”

The area’s MHA, Chris Tibbs, has taken up Feener’s cause — and is calling on the provincial government to reverse its decision. He said the business is a victim of a double standard.

“How you can jam … 100 people into something half the size of this movie theatre and maintain safety and physical distancing when we [can’t] do it right here is beyond me,” he said. 

“I couldn’t be happier for the bars and restaurants, I want to make that quite clear, but we want the same opportunity.” 

Feener said he’s taken extensive safety measures, including signs and directions for foot traffic, hand sanitizer and physical distancing, but hasn’t been able to convince the provincial government to loosen its rules. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

In Wednesday’s media briefing, Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief medical officer of health said the interactions that take place inside movie theatres are different — and that’s why the rules are different.

“People who are watching a movie tend to go in together, they spend a period of time together in the same enclosed space,” said Dr. Janice Fitzgerald. “That’s a little bit different than people who are going to a restaurant who may overlap and may not spend a lot of time with each other.”

“There’s a couple of things to keep in mind: People, space, time, place, right?”

However, Fitzgerald also said the province is reviewing those restrictions, and the general restriction against gatherings with more than 50 people.

“Certainly these are questions that we are looking at,” she said.

Chris Tibbs, the MHA for Grand Falls-Windsor-Buchans, says the Classic Theater is important economically and socially to the community, and can’t be shut down. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Feener wants the provincial government to expand his capacity to more than 80 people — 40 per cent of his previous allowance. He said that amount would be safe and economically feasible.

He also invited Fitzgerald and Health Minister John Haggie to come to his business to see his measures first-hand.

Nova Scotia allows its movie theatres to operate at 50 per cent occupancy with a cap at 200 people, while Ontario has limited the number of people to 50 inside the entire movie theatre building — not just a single auditorium — prompting Cineplex to ask that province’s government to loosen its regulations.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


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