The sound of kernels popping and the smell of fresh popcorn may once again be a reality in the NWT. Movie theatres are ramping up to reopen in the coming weeks.
Yellowknife’s Capitol Theatre and the Riverview Cineplex in Hay River closed in March in accordance with orders from the NWT’s chief public health officer.
They have since been working on changes to their buildings to comply with new health and safety regulations brought on by Covid-19.
Alterations include protective shields at cash points and sanitization stations.
Both are excited to have guests return. Chris Wood, manager of the Capitol Theatre, believes people are itching to watch a film on the big screen.
“You can only watch so many movies at home on TV with your kids before you want to go back to the theatre,” he said.
Wood wanted to reopen a little while ago but said the guidelines caused confusion about the number of people allowed in the building.
The NWT’s pandemic recovery guidelines state movie theatres can open in phase two but may only hold a maximum of 25 people, assuming they pass a risk assessment that determines the measures required to safely operate.
“It didn’t say whether that was 25 people for the whole complex or 25 people for auditoriums,” Wood said.
In his original discussions with public health officials – before phase two of pandemic recovery was reached – Wood said he was not told there would be new restrictions on theatre capacity, as long as patrons were properly socially distanced.
Once phase two kicked in, Wood ended up applying for an exemption to fill his cinema with more than 25 people (all properly distanced). A limit of 25 customers per film would not be financially viable, he said.
“We may be losing less money, but we wouldn’t be making any.”
Wood described weeks of back-and-forth with public health officials regarding his application. He says he felt that people were not taking the time to thoroughly review his application, as he kept receiving the same questions from different people.
“I don’t think people are closely examining the stuff that I’m giving to them. I think it’s easier to just keep asking questions than it is to actually read and examine the information you already have,” he said.
Without the exemption, Wood said he was unsure what the future of the theatre would be. Every month of closure was costing the theatre “north of $40,000,” he said.
Wood finally received confirmation on Saturday night that he can reopen with more guests in a socially distanced space.
While there’s no set date for reopening, Wood says that will now happen soon.
Requirements for reopening
Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer, confirmed that 25 people are allowed in each individual auditorium if no exemption exists.
Businesses can apply for an exemption if they believe they can allow more occupants into their space in a safe manner, he said.
The exemption form requires business owners to submit a floor plan that identifies traffic flow, proposed adaptations, and bathroom procedures to ensure distancing can be arranged.
To open regularly without an exemption, movie theatres need only complete the risk assessment and comply with the actions required.
Westwick said the office does have empathy for people who are going through lengthier processes, and suggests people submit forms as far ahead of time as possible to ensure they can be processed.
“We’re very much alive to the fact that there’ve been some challenges,” Westwick said.
“It’s everyone’s first pandemic and we’re always going to try and we’re always going to continue to work to do better by folks throughout this whole period.”
Michelle Schaub, manager of Hay River’s Riverview Cineplex, hopes to reopen the business on August 1. She said Riverview had not experienced the same issues as the Capitol Theatre.
Schaub is still in discussions with Protect NWT to determine how many people will be able to attend movies at Hay River’s theatre. There is not yet a confirmed number, but Schaub said it will be a slow start if the theatre is allotted only 25 people.
Coping financially with the pandemic has been easier for Riverview, which is owned by the Rowe’s Group of Companies, said Schaub.
Over the past weekend, the Hay River theatre ran a trial where people could order concessions and sign up for a time to pick them up.
Schaub says a lot of people were happy to have a taste of the movies again. When she started taking orders, she was surprised at how many people just wanted popcorn.
She warned there will be changes to the regular flow of the movie theatre when it does reopen.
“I just want to make sure that we follow all the regulations, but also still make it a fun place to go and give people another outlet to get out of their houses and enjoy life a little bit,” she said.
A sigh of relief
It will take at least two weeks to reopen the Capitol Theatre, Wood says. He has not bought the necessary personal protective equipment yet as he was unsure if the theatre would reopen.
Wood has now worked out the necessary logistics, such as bathroom regulations and using the side exit so patrons will not run into other customers. The theatre will have staggered start times so staff have 30 minutes to sanitize and clean each auditorium.
Wood says he understands Westwick’s point about the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, but describes feeling left on the back burner for weeks while trying to get his exemption.
“It’s a very difficult situation for them because they’re kind-of just flying by the seam of their pants, trying to make it up as they go along,” he said.
“But the problem is that those of us who are down here, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to get our businesses reopened, are basically kind-of ignored.”
With an exemption in hand, he is relieved he can get back to his old job.
“I just want to say thank-you for your patience,” he said to Yellowknifers.
“Know that we’re trying to do everything we can to get the theatre open. As soon as it’s practical, we will be open.”