Canadian Venues Covid Update

With virtually all of Ontario about to enter phase 3 tomorrow, indoor music venues will be allowed to reopen. Severe restrictions in the province and across Canada means it will not be business as usual, however, as our man in the clubs, Cam Carpenter, discovered.

Canadian Venues Covid Update

By Cam Carpenter

The Government of Ontario has announced that Toronto and Peel region will enter into phase 3 of reopening at 12:01 a.m. Friday, July 31st. This will leave hard-hit Windsor-Essex as the only region in the province left in phase two.

The ruling allows bars and restaurants to open indoors with a maximum capacity of 50 patrons, all of whom must be seated. Social distancing must be adhered to at all times and guests are required to stay two metres apart. Outdoor capacity now expands to 100. Plexiglass or some other impermeable barrier will be required between the audience and performers. Dancing and karaoke are not permitted. 


Shaun Bowring is the owner of The Garrison (1197 Dundas Street West) and The Baby G (1608 Dundas Street West) in Toronto. Both venues are important stops for Canadian and International acts on the touring circuit. He is also been one of the driving forces behind The Canadian Independent Venue Coalition ( an alliance of venue owners and operators across the country raising awareness of the difficulties currently faced by venues and their vital place in the Canadian music ecosystem. 

Although no one would be happier to have both venues running at capacity after being shut down for over four months, Bowring is willing to play the long game. "Opening venues in Ontario's "Stage 3" is problematic for a multitude of reasons. From a public health perspective, indoor gatherings of people are considered high risk for transmission of covid-19. Coupled with the added expense of PPE, safety requirements, security, liability etc. make it economically infeasible.

A bad restart by venues could be more devastating in the long run than covid closure itself. We have seen venues and bars open in the USA only to be shut down because of the skyrocketing covid-19 infections. We are starting to see that rise in Canada. Opening and closing several times with each spike in numbers will bankrupt many businesses... and really does anyone want to see a band fish tank style behind plexiglass while standing 2 meters away from the rest of the audience? Sounds like a terrible experience for the performers, audience and venue staff alike. It is wait-and-see for now.”


Lisa Zbitinew, owner and operator of  Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre (410 Sherbourne Street) and Ottawa’s Bronson Centre Music Theatre (211 Bronson Avenue) had this to say:

“The Phoenix and Bronson Centre Music Theatre are 1350 and 925 cap rooms respectively.  A 50 person restriction doesn’t offer up much opportunity.  In fact, it will be more costly to open than to stay closed at that number.

We need to see a minimum 30% capacity to make things work.   We are confident that we can do this safely.  There are 18,000 square feet to work with here, so social distancing will not be a problem.

That said, I’m not optimistic that we will see 30% percent anytime soon.  It has been given to places of worship in the Ontario reopening plan, but not to music venues. The church of Rock and Roll anyone? Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to apply..”


Another Toronto stakeholder who is not in a hurry to start booking yet is Jeff Cohen, owner of Collective Concerts, Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor Street West) and the legendary Horseshoe Tavern (370 Queen Street West). 

“The Horseshoe is going to open its front bar when or if phase 3 comes around but for now we are going to hold off opening the back room (the extended front patio is currently open). 

First, the regulations as they exist today only allow 50 folks max indoors, not 50 in each section of the venue, so seeing as though you have to pass into the front patio and the front bar to get into the live room, it’s just logistically one big cluster fuck”. 


Second, we just don’t see how the majority of our local artists can make any income on just 50 people, to that end since phase 2 commenced not a single local headliner has inquired about a booking, that’s pretty telling. 

Lastly, the idea that a small audience can watch bands play as if they were swimming in an aquarium of plexiglass doesn’t in any way excite us, seems more suited for a Soho peep show, no?"

Both Lee’s Palace and the upstairs Dance Cave are also going to sit it out a while longer. 

It seems like the plexiglass barrier rule around the artists is not a popular one, and could be very cost-prohibitive for smaller venues. I spoke with one venue owner who is not going to go to the expense as rules quickly change (such as once building expensive ventilated smoking areas) and the cost can not be justified. 

Some of the smaller venues in the city are opening their patios and starting to get ready for the next step. Joanne Clayton, who runs Relish Bar & Grill (511 Danforth Avenue), has been offering take-out food and has recently opened the patio but can’t wait to get back to live music.

“From 13 shows a week to over 150 days of silence was the hardest part of this whole pandemic,” she says. Teaming with Ghanada Media and Aim 2 Impact, she is presenting a show with the Danny Marks Combo on Saturday, August 8 from 1 - 3 PM. Using state of the art technology will allow them to do multi-platform streams with several camera angles, banner notifications and advertising while pulling the audio straight from the soundboard. This first show will be closed to the public to control the environment and all of the stagehands will be wearing masks. 


Originally booked to play The Dakota Tavern (249 Ossington Avenue) in August, The Fast Romantics have seized the moment and will broadcast live from the venue on Thursday, August 20 at 9 PM (EST) in a special Worldwide Album Release Party for their new record Pick It Up. The show will be filmed and directed by Jared Raab (July Talk, Born Ruffians, Arkells). Tickets are available at

The Bovine Sex Club (542 Queen Street West) has opened its rooftop Tiki Bar and have extended it right on to Queen Street with curbside service. The Paddock Tavern (178 Bathurst) have opened their front patio and owner Nico Sizd recently debuted the Riptide Beach Pub (1980 Queen Street East) with patio service. He hopes to have live music at both venues in the coming months. Castro’s Lounge (2116 Queen Street East), a springboard for local musicians such as Jerry Leger, has recently opened its patio as well. 

Over on Ossington, Nicky & Jess Potter from The Painted Lady (218 Ossington) have transformed the venue and front patio to the “Lady’s Juice Joint,” serving blender drinks both day and night. Inside, the venue has used Mondrian inspired dividers and customers can go inside to order a drink or a bite to eat and be entertained by a burlesque dancer, a DJ and even a skater on synthetic ice while they wait. 


Hamilton, Ontario, entered phase three Friday, July 24th. Local rock venue the Casbah (360 King Street West) is up and running only as an outdoor patio-garden at this time. 

Venue owner and local promoter Brodie Schwendiman offered the following.

“Operating an indoor limited capacity live space right now is not only financially unwise, but we also feel is premature from a public health standpoint.”

Sadly Hamilton music fans will now be without This Ain’t Hollywood, which said its final farewell on Sunday, July 26th after 11 years.

The province of Quebec has moved into phase three but there are new restrictions placed on bars including a midnight last call (usual last call is 3 AM), 50% capacity, seated service only, contact information requirements and no dancing.

“For the first time I can say I am happy to be 72” laughed Montreal venue owner and promoter Rubin Fogel. He does not foresee Club Soda (1225 St. Laurent Blvd) opening until mid-October at this point. When things make economic sense to begin booking shows again he sees it as a great opportunity for local, regional and national acts. First, the public needs to be willing to go out and the local artists should be ready. 

Montreal bar Foufounes Electriques has decided to remain closed until further notice and their annual Under Pressure Graffiti Festival (Aug 1-9) is being reimagined as a virtual event. 

New mask-wearing rules go into effect this  Friday, July 31 in the province of Nova Scotia and now patrons will be required to wear masks indoors and only allowed to take them off when eating and drinking. According to Halifax music venue The Carleton performers will also be required to wear masks with vocalists only allowed to remove them when singing. Could be tough sledding for drummers for the next little while. 

Winnipeg’s The Pyramid (176 Fort Street) opened on June 13 and has presented 14 shows since then including music of all types, two Indigenous celebrations and EDM. They also have a DJ entertaining on their patio. According to the venue’s David McKeigan, “the entertainers who have played have been ecstatic and relieved while many have opted out over Covid uncertainty”

The club is at 50% capacity, social distancing is mandated, hand sanitizers are available, seating is mandatory and there is no service at the bar with servers handling the orders. Security has been increased and they are letting customers know if they stray from the rules. McKeigan realises that the closing of the border has taken a toll but agrees that toll is necessary. 

Although currently “in survivor mode” he is happy to be able to offer employment and contribute to the local economy. He hopes for bigger bands to show up and do three or four night stands at a higher ticket price to give fans a chance to see artists in a socially distanced environment. With multi-night performances, performers could also stay well-rested and healthy. 

One recurring theme is much-needed government support, federal, provincial and local. Jeff Cohen shares his thoughts:

“Our hope is Heritage Canada/FACTOR find a way to make our venue disbursement eligible and find us worthy of funding, like our fellow industry record companies, festivals, and non-profits and then the Toronto 50% commercial property tax rebate kicks in later in the year. If you combine those two funding possibilities both the Horseshoe and Lee’s will survive and ride it out until 2021.” 

These are trying times for the Canadian music industry and the coming weeks and months are going to be very crucial for everyone involved from venues to musicians, agents, managers, crews, publicists, labels and every other person employed in the business.

It will be interesting to see how the general public reacts to the opportunity to see live music inside a venue again. 

Stay tuned, wear a mask and be safe. Let’s make this work for everybody.

Hailey Bieber
David Sims for W Magazine

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