As Toronto Film Fest Screenings Go Mask-Optional, Attendees Fear Event Will Be a Coronavirus "Superspreader"

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The fest's decision not to require face coverings in theaters is raising concerns about the safety of in-person viewings.

While the Venice film fest and major U.S. cinema chains have mandated face masks during movie screenings to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the Toronto International Film Festival — which is offering both in-person and virtual screenings — has adopted a more relaxed stance that makes masking up compulsory in its TIFF Bell Lightbox venue, but not "when seated in-cinema."

In a statement to THR, Toronto organizers insist they’re strictly following the advice of public health experts, which limits the Bell Lightbox venue to 50 socially distanced patrons per screen, among other safety precautions (the five Lightbox theaters can collectively seat more than 1,200 moviegoers).

On Sept. 8, that was followed with the Toronto festival changing its policy on face masks in its theaters on the eve of its virtual 2020 edition. TIFF will now require fest-goers to wear face coverings during all in-person movie viewing at its Bell Lightbox multiplex.

"...Due to recent public health reports indicating that there has been an increase in COVID cases in the GTA, we have made the decision that for the safety, comfort and peace-of-mind of our audiences, TIFF Bell Lightbox will close its concession stands, thereby eliminating a point of contact for patrons," the festival said in a statement.

Mandates from the Toronto Public Health office stipulate masks are mandatory "in indoor public spaces" and filmgoers must wear them everywhere in a movie theater, including when seated. At TIFF’s screenings at outdoor venues, including drive-ins, wearing a mask is optional, "though it’s recommended when physical distancing cannot be maintained," according to Toronto Public Health spokesperson Dr. Vinita Dubey.

The widely held opinion is that Canada’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic has been effective, but that perception may not match the north-of-the-border reality. Pollsters say many Canadians shrugged off coronavirus fears and were reluctant to wear masks in public until July, when the government required them to do so in response to rising infection rates. "Canadians in larger cities were generally pretty lax about mask-wearing until laws were put in place," says Graeme Bruce, a business data journalist with British polling firm YouGov.

Infectious disease experts warn that beyond TIFF screenings, the social nature of the fest could increase the risks of COVID-19 transmission. "The reason people want to go is for interaction. [So] you have tension already," says Thomas Tenkate, associate professor of occupational and public health at Ryerson University in Toronto.

For Canadian actress Ramona Pringle, a TIFF regular who is also director of Ryerson University’s Transmedia Zone, the mixed messaging on face masks is a cause for concern. "Unfortunately, I fear we’ve tumbled into this situation where you could have one of those superspreader events," says Pringle, "because people are in a confined space, which very likely could be a movie theater."

Sept. 9, 9:00 a.m. Updated with a correction on Toronto Public Health COVID protocols for indoor theater screenings. Also updated with a statement from TIFF after it reversed its face mask policy for in-theater screenings.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.