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Despite higher capacity limits, some venues won't be back to normal anytime soon

Some local live-event ­venues will continue to feel the ­pandemic pinch, despite the B.C. government’s decision to remove capacity restrictions on indoor organized events and gatherings starting Monday.
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Quincy Leachman, general manager of The Duke Saloon and Upstairs Cabaret, two popular nightspots: “It’s definitely progress, so I can’t be upset about it. But it’s a new host of challenges trying to get people to sit down and not dance.” ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Some local live-event ­venues will continue to feel the ­pandemic pinch, despite the B.C. government’s decision to remove capacity restrictions on indoor organized events and gatherings starting Monday.

While the change is ­welcomed by small theatres and ­restaurants, other venues, including nightclubs, will remain limited. Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre will see a partial benefit right away — the next home hockey game for the Victoria Royals on Nov. 5 will have a capacity of 7,000 people. But concerts at the arena require months of advance planning.

The only non-hockey events booked at the Memorial Centre currently are a concert by James ­Taylor and Jackson Browne, and the Stars on Ice tour, both of which occur in May.

“It takes a bit of time to plan this kind of stuff, from a ­promoter’s point of view,” said George Fadel, senior director of marketing for the ­Memorial Centre, whose calendar has been an ever-rotating mix of announcements, postponements and cancellations.

Nightclubs are in the most tenuous spot. Unlike restaurants and lounges, which offer seating for their patrons, venues where dancing is a significant component remain in limbo. Their capacities will be upped from 50 per cent to 100 next week, but there’s a no-dancing edict from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“It’s definitely progress, so I can’t be upset about it,” said Quincy Leachman, general manager of The Duke Saloon and Upstairs Cabaret.

“But it’s a new host of challenges trying to get people to sit down and not dance.”

The Duke has a capacity of 300 people, which had been cut to 150 for recent events. Leachman expects the new provincial health orders will amount to an additional 20 people in the room, until dancing is allowed — a good improvement, he said, but not a great one. He has encountered greater difficulty with Upstairs Cabaret, which has been shuttered for the better part of two years due to COVID-related constrictions.

The venue in Bastion Square has a capacity of 500, and is looking at reopening only for live events in the coming weeks. “As we speak, I’m looking at floor plans, trying to see how many seats we can squeeze in while giving people a good view of the stage,” Leachman said.

Staffing will be an issue, no matter the venue or type of event. “It isn’t like turning on a switch, and it will take some time to build capacity — including recruitment of staff — within our organization,” said Randal Huber, managing director of the Chemainus Theatre Festival. “We are planning a graduated return to stage but don’t have any programming for mainstage to announce as of [this week].”

The Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre held a job fair to entice new workers, but Fadel said there may still be a shortage of trained professionals once concerts return in full. The film industry, which saw a healthy resurgence during the pandemic, is where many service-industry professionals have turned for work. (In an ironic twist, The Duke received a consistent stream of revenue during the pandemic as one of the main production hubs for the Victoria-shot Netflix series Maid.)

With no promise of recurring shifts at bars or theatres, many servers have left the industry. “They’ve moved on to the government job or real estate or wherever good bartenders go to die,” Leachman said with a laugh.

Many operators spoke about “the new normal,” and why audiences should lower their expectations of what is feasible, given the financial constraints brought about by COVID-19. That said, there is hope. Both the McPherson Playhouse and Royal Theatre have full winter schedules that come back to life in the first week of November.

mdevlin@timescolonist.com