East Vancouver's Rio Theatre turns itself into a sports bar to survive the pandemic

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      The Rio Theatre in East Van has been a hub of creativity ever since Corinne Lea started running the place more than a decade ago.

      But this week, Lea's taken this to new heights with performance art that may sow the seeds of her company's survival.

      "Screw the arts—let's watch sports!" the Rio declares in its latest email alert.

      Yes, the Rio Theatre—long a home for movies, comedy, music, and important public conversations—is becoming a sports bar, starting on Saturday (January 23).

      "We have a liquor primary licence, just like all the other bars do," Lea told CKNW Radio host Lynda Steele. "We also have a limited food food-service licence. We've got grilled cheese, popcorn, candy, beer."

      Provincial health regulations won't allow movies to be shown in cinema houses, even if everyone is masked and seated more than two metres from one another.

      But bars, which fuel the provincial treasury through liquor sales, have been allowed to stay open through the pandemic. As have shopping malls, which are major sources of provincial sales tax revenue.

      Why the discrepancy? That's because the provincial government defines movies and the performing arts as "public events". They're forbidden. 

      So the province still manages to collects tons of dough while the starving artists continue to go hungry.

      "Apparently watching sports in a bar is safe but movies are not safe," Lea told Steele without missing a beat. "So we're going to do the safe thing and be a sports bar."

      The Rio will show hockey games and other live sporting events on the big screen. It means that some staff can keep working until the province's ban on movies ends on February 5. Minors will be welcome in the balcony.

      The doors will be open from 3:30 to 10 p.m.

      One of the lighter moments in the interview came when Steele asked Lea if she knew the name of the captain of the Vancouver Canucks.

      The theatre owner drew a blank before deftly replying that a guy named Linden used to be captain before he retired.

      It's been a tough year for Rio Theatre CEO Corinne Lea and all of her staff.

      Rio puts a premium on safety

      On a more serious note, Lea is assuring everyone that strict COVID-19 protocols will be in place at her sports bar.

      This means anyone who drops by will have to wear a mask when entering the building and going to the washroom.

      The Rio also has a glass barrier between staff and customers in the lobby, as well as hand-sanitizer stations. And when it was open as a theatre last year, it limited groups to pods of four and sprayed the seats with hydrogen peroxide after every screening.

      Other safety measures included ensuring that traffic patterns of customers were controlled in the theatre and that their information was collected to allow for contact tracing.

      And no, there weren't any reported COVID-19 transmissions inside the Rio Theatre or any other cinemas in Canada when they were open in the summer and fall of 2020.

      Petition made case for cinemas

      The Rio is transitioning to a sports bar after an online petition failed to persuade Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to allow movies to be shown inside theatres.

      "We feel that movie theatres and screenings have been mis-categorized by your administration as 'events,' instead of as a business operating within the hospitality or food and beverage industry," the petition states.

      "Mis-categorizing screenings as 'events' (as stated on the BC Provincial website) unfairly and disproportionately targets our industry, and shows a lack of understanding of how we operate," it continues.

      The Rio Theatre seats 420 people, but it limited the number to 50 when it was allowed to open last year.

      In the petition, the Rio points out that with its high ceiling and ample space, there's more room to keep people safe than in any restaurant, bar, or shopping mall. Plus, the building has very good ventilation.

      "Films are very different from community gatherings or ceremonial events such as weddings, or other similarly organized gatherings at churches or temples - our patrons do not congregate or socialize in large groups," the petition notes. "Rather, guests attend a film as either solo individuals, or safely distanced in small pods - much the same way they do at a restaurant."

      As of this writing, the petition has collected more than 7,000 signatures.