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Rio Theatre In Vancouver Pivots To Sports Bar To Skirt COVID-19 Restrictions

In B.C., public health restrictions mean movie theatres are closed, but sports bars remain open.

Any sports fan knows that when the going gets tough, sometimes you have to get creative.

While movie theatres in British Columbia remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic until at least early February, one Vancouver institution has found a way to reopen — and all it took was a little teamwork, hustle and sportsmanship.

The Rio Theatre in East Vancouver has rebranded as a sports bar and plans to reopen for business Saturday. The theatre announced the move Tuesday with a blunt change to its marquee.

Under health restrictions in place in B.C. since late November, public movie screenings are classified as “group events” and therefore not allowed anywhere in the province. But bars and restaurants have remained open for in-person dining throughout the pandemic’s second wave.

“Apparently watching sports in a bar is safe but movies are not safe,” Rio owner Corinne Lea said during a radio appearance on the Lynda Steele show this week. “So we’re going to do the safe thing and be a sports bar.”

The shift to being a sports bar for the Rio means sports will play on the big screen from 3:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily. The venue will also serve popcorn, snacks, grilled cheese and adult beverages with no cover charge. Strict COVID-19 safety practices such as distanced seating and mandatory masking will be maintained.

In a Wednesday statement, the B.C. Ministry of Health said there weren’t any obvious problems with the Rio’s plans, so long as the facility maintains a COVID-19 safety plan.

“If they are fully licensed, and the conditions are met under the order, including an approved safety plan – then likely yes – they could operate as a restaurant or bar,” a spokesperson for the ministry wrote in a Wednesday statement. “This demonstrates the ingenuity of a long-standing B.C. business in unprecedented times.”

The Rio Theatre and Lea have been vocal critics of pandemic restrictions throughout the past year, calling out the province’s choice to let malls and bars remain open but not movie theatres.

“Apparently watching sports in a bar is safe but movies are not safe ... So we’re going to do the safe thing and be a sports bar.”

- Corinne Lea

In December, the theatre launched an online petition to lobby Health Minister Adrian Dix and chief medical officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to allow them to reopen.

“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.”

The petition currently has over 7,000 signatures.

The theatre has also used its marquee to communicate dissatisfaction.

Lea says the shift to sports isn’t a long-term plan, but merely temporary.

For NFL fans, it does come just in time for the league’s NFC and AFC championship games this weekend.

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