On Thursday, Quebec premier Francois Legault announced that all indoor public events with more than 250 people would be banned, to control the spread of the novel coronavirus.
For restaurants and bars, the response to this was straightforward: most of them have capacities nowhere near 250, so they can stay open. At the time of writing, Eater is not aware of any restaurant in Montreal closing its doors due to COVID-19 (although a few did set about reassuring customers of their beefed-up health and hygiene measures).
But other sectors of the nightlife industry — music venues and nightclubs in particular — have had a more mixed response, and a tough decision to make: to stay open or shut down temporarily, cancelling events and shows.
Legault’s 250-person cap on events applies to clubs and salles de spectacle, but the tricky part here is that Montreal doesn’t have a bunch of large, 1,000+ capacity clubs and venues. Those few establishments probably have their decision made for them: it doesn’t make sense to open a huge space and only admit 250 people, resulting in a quarter-full dance floor.
Canceling the weekend’s parties is just what large Griffintown club New City Gas has done — it a statement to Eater, a representative confirmed that club management postponed an event for Saturday,
The health and wellness of our community, clients, staff, guests, artists, and partners are our top priority and we feel it is prudent and responsible to temporarily suspend our operations at this time.
But due to its large capacity of over 1,000, New City Gas is an outlier — many Montreal clubs and music halls are smaller, and continuing on with events is a plausible option for them (although in some cases, with somewhat restricted capacity).
This leaves them with a tough decision on whether to open or not. And a good number have opted to open their doors: Stereo in the Village has cancelled major international acts, but will open with reduced capacity. Le Belmont, on the Plateau, is similarly capping its capacity (but not cancelling artists); ditto for Newspeak in the Latin Quarter.
Tightly-packed nightclubs and concerts are the ideal areas for a virus like COVID-19 to spread, more so than a restaurant, where customers are seated and somewhat spaced out.
British medical expert and academic Jennifer Rohn recently highlighted this in the New York Times, noting that around sweaty spaces like dance floors, viruses can more easily stick to surfaces and hang around. Plus, in a loud environments where people might lean in closer to talk to each other, it’s far easier for a virus to jump from person to person, via fluids like saliva. That same article points to a scenario in Berlin, where 17 people at one club contracted the novel coronavirus on one night at the end of February.
This evidence might suggest that closing down is the obvious choice, but that would have its own negative impacts — staff and artists, some of who are already working on an irregular basis, would lose income and face possible financial difficulties. If closures drag on for weeks, entire venues could go bankrupt, knocking out the livelihoods of many more staff, too.
It’s a particularly difficult decision to weigh in Montreal, where the number of cases is currently particularly small, even in comparison to other cities in North America like New York or Los Angeles. Most notably, no cases appear to have been actually transmitted in Quebec — all known cases are from people that had been travelling elsewhere. That said, there’s a good chance that if cases spread in the coming weeks, and places like Newspeak and Stereo may be forced to closed, but with relatively few cases right now, it arguably could make sense to open this weekend to mitigate likely losses in future.
At this stage, it seems like most clubs are opening, but not all — the Plateau’s École Privée posted a note to Instagram on Thursday stating that it would temporarily close out of an “abundance of caution,” promising a reopening party when the time comes; nearby club Apartment 200 did the same — although both clubs are small enough that they theoretically could have opened with reduced capacity if they wanted. (Eater has reached out to École Privée for a more detailed comment on the decision to close.)
Latin Quarter club Foufounes Electriques also announced that it is cancelling all events, but that it will open its ground-level bar.
The various venues that have decided to open don’t seem to be acting flippantly about COVID-19 — in announcing their decisions to open on Facebook, pretty much every venue demonstrates at least a reasonable grasp of the situation, requesting that guests with illnesses stay away, and some recommending that people who have travelled in the last two weeks also stay home. Old Montreal’s La Voûte will require guests to wash their hands at the entry, with a Facebook post staying it is taking “extra precautions”
Given the unusual nature of the situation, there really is no telling who’s making the right decision here. It’s possible that Montreal’s clubs could become a hotbed of COVID-19 transmission, but it’s equally possible that no adverse effects will come of this. Realistically, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle — but nobody will really know until the lights come up one night in the coming weeks.