Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has introduced strict and sweeping new measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, including a form of vaccine passport.
Apologizing and admitting fault for his government’s handling of the pandemic, Kenney announced a state of public health emergency on September 15.
Alberta will now implement new health measures to expand capacity, increase vaccination rates and reduce transmission of COVID-19, including new capacity and other restrictions on restaurants beginning Sept. 20.
Restaurants will be limited to outdoor dining only, with a maximum of six people per table. Liquor sales will continue to end at 10 p.m. and consumption will stop at 11 p.m.
A new form of vaccine passport system will also be introduced that requires people to provide government-issued proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test in order to gain entry to participating businesses and events including restaurants. Kenney’s government is calling it a “restrictions exemption program.”
Affected businesses also include retail and a variety of other establishments and events.
An exemption program
Alberta’s vaccine passport program differs from those already announced in other provinces in that it operates on the basis of business owners and operators apply to be exempt from the new restrictions.
Starting Sept. 20, businesses or event organizers who choose to implement a program checking patrons for government-issued proof of vaccination or a recent negative privately purchased COVID-19 test will be able to have an exemption to some of the new health restrictions. If a business or service chooses not to require proof of vaccination, they will be required to adhere to all of the new stricter rules.
To enter these establishments, which include restaurants and bars, people aged 12 and older will be required to show their proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result.
There will be a grace period between Sept. 20 and Oct. 25, during which proof of a single dose will be considered acceptable as long as two weeks have passed since the vaccination.
“No one will be compelled to get vaccinated against their wishes, and a negative test option will be offered as an alternative,” Kenney said, per CBC. “But with unvaccinated patients overwhelming our hospitals, this is now the only responsible choice that we have.
A learning process
In Edmonton, O’Byrne’s Irish Pub general manager Cathal O’Byrne told Global News that his establishment will be taking part in the vaccine passport exemption program as it is “our social responsibility to protect our local community.”
However, he stressed it will be “a learning process.”
“It’s going to be step by step. How do we deal with individuals who aren’t vaccinated? What do we tell them? How do we turn them away? It is for the safety of everyone — not only our guests but [also] our staff, our employees, our family.”
Ernie Tsu, president of the Alberta Hospitality Association, noted there is some confusion over how the new measures will be implemented, adding that he doesn’t understand why the pressure is on businesses to enforce these rules.
“Why is the government not leading?” Tsu said, per Global. “I’ll tell you why. The government has been absent the last four weeks when the cases started to rise, and now we’re in this situation. Why should a business have to dictate a mandate?”
Jonathan Alward, prairies director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, echoed these concerns, noting that restaurants had practical concerns around the administration and policing of such a program, and some also fear harassment or pushback from the public.
“There’s a lot of valid reasons why business owners would have reservations,” Alward said. “There’s a lot of grey area about requiring mandatory vaccinations of staff, for example … If you’re a restaurant, you just can’t ask your staff to work from home.”
Alward noted that a survey of CFIB members in August indicated that only about 40 per cent of Alberta-based respondents support a vaccine passport, even when weighed against the possibility of another lockdown.
However, in recent weeks, the government had faced repeated calls from doctors, the Opposition NDP and business groups to introduce a vaccine passport, as other provinces have done.
Some businesses including restaurants had already started independently implementing their own form of vaccine passport in the province in recent weeks.
Edmonton’s Arcadia Brewing Co. owner Darren McGeown had told CBC last week that the decision “had to be made” as, at the time, it did not look like the government would act decisively. “It’s not the easiest decision to make, business-wise, but it’s the right thing to do,” McGeown said. “It’s the only way to move forward.”
Tsu, who also owns Calgary’s Trolley 5 brewery and restaurant, had said last week that the Alberta Hospitality Association believed there was “strong support” from restaurant owners for a provincially mandated program. “Everyone is frustrated and extremely angry,” Tsu said. “On a personal level, I would be in favour of it, if it meant restaurants could operate without restrictions.”
Now, Kenney said the province has “reluctantly” decided to implement the program despite his previous concerns about vaccine passports.
“I had earlier committed not to introduce proof of vaccination because of concerns I had around privacy rights,” he said, per CBC. “But the government’s first obligation must be to avoid large numbers of preventable deaths. We must deal with the reality that we are facing. We cannot wish it away. Morally, ethically and legally, the protection of life must be our paramount concern.”
Right now, Alberta has more than 18,000 active cases — the most of any province.