Is asking for proof of vaccination the new restaurant normal?

By Tom Nightingale

Across Canada, North America, and beyond, the debate around vaccinations has been raging since numerous vaccines became widely available a few months ago. Now, the hottest topic may be proof of vaccination.

Much has been made of whether requiring proof of vaccinations — be they so-called “vaccine passports” or other forms of proof — is the way forward, particularly for industries such as foodservice where there are real and present risks of exposure.

On August 5, Quebec Premier Francois Legault confirmed Quebec will become the first Canadian province to implement such a vaccine passport at the start of September in the face of rising case numbers and the prospect of more hospitalizations and deaths. The move will see residents mandated to provide proof of vaccination to access certain or all non-essential services, such as restaurants and bars.

The theory is that such passports will prevent the province from having to impose another blanket lockdown on non-essential services, thus reducing the impact on industries like hospitality.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested at the time that other provinces could follow Quebec’s lead.

And, on August 23, British Columbia confirmed it would become the second province to mandate proof of vaccination by introducing a vaccine passport in mid-September.

A growing trend in North America and beyond

How Canada ultimately moves forward in this regard remains to be seen.

But if recent developments in the U.S. and beyond are anything to go by, some extent of this measure may become the new normal.

On Tuesday, August 3, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city will be requiring proof of vaccination to enter all restaurants, fitness centres, and indoor entertainment venues. “If you want to participate in our society fully, you’ve got to get vaccinated,” De Blasio said, as reported by CNN.

The city will begin enforcing the program on September 13, the mayor said the same date as B.C.’s measure. The move comes as various businesses in the States have begun rolling out vaccine requirements for employees and, in some cases, for customers and clients too.

And on August 12, San Francisco’s mayor announced it would introduce mandatory proof of vaccination even sooner than NYC, enforcing the measure from August 20, reports CNN.

Below the level of full-state mandates, action is already being taken.

A “no vax, no service” policy is being adopted by a growing number of restaurants from coast to coast, as the Delta variant of COVID-19 fuels a rise in cases in the U.S., reports Forbes.

Before the city announced its mandate, the San Francisco Bar Owners Alliance, which represents roughly 300 of the city’s bars, directed its members to require customers to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to drink indoors.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a growing number of restaurants, bars, and comedy clubs are checking vaccine cards (or negative test results) along with IDs at the door, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Shake Shack founder and Union Square Hospitality CEO Danny Meye, who has announced his fine dining establishments in NYC and Washington, D.C. will require staff and indoor diners to be vaccinated beginning September 7, stressed he believes this requirement will make more people want to dine at his restaurants due to their commitment to safety.

Around the world, the measure is also being seen. On Monday, a day before NYC’s announcement, France’s parliament passed a law that requires a “health pass” showing proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test in order to enter restaurants, bars, and for travel on long-distance trains and planes.

Some believe momentum could grow within Canada. For instance, CTV News notes the Toronto Region Board of Trade has called on the Ontario government to introduce a vaccine passport for non-essential business activities.

Concerns inside and outside the industry

Requiring proof of vaccination for restaurant entry is not supported with universal acclaim, though.

Chief among the concerns are the strain that such a mandate would place on operators and staff, as well as potential safety and privacy issues.

The policy will require “significant changes for how restaurants are operating,” said Larry Lynch, senior vice president of science and industry for the National Restaurant Association, per CNN. He also warned that burdening restaurants with the responsibility to enforce this could put employees at risk, pointing to the “terrifying backlash” that many faced when mask mandates were rolled out last year.

Lynch said he hopes the city will work with the National Restaurant Association to ensure “clear guidance and support for our workforce.”

Those concerns were echoed by Dominique Tremblay, spokesperson for Quebec’s restaurant association. Tremblay said, per CBC: “[Patrons] are going to scream and be angry at the employees directly,” and noted the association is also concerned about extra labour for staff.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) also voiced its opposition to the concept of vaccine passports when Manitoba introduced a similar system for travel back in June.

“We’re a bit concerned about this idea that certain rights are going to be granted to people who’ve been fully vaccinated when not everyone who would like to be fully vaccinated can be,” said Cara Zwibel of the CCLA.

Potential consumer pushback

Indeed, while numerous restaurants have been willing to add this mandate for indoor dining, not all consumers are reacting positively.

An Angus Reid Institute survey in May found that while 79 per cent of Canadians approved of a vaccine passport for international travel, only 55 per cent were in favour of applying that to services like restaurants.

In the U.S., surveys are showing more dramatic results. Fewer than one-quarter of consumers support indoor dining vaccine mandates, according to a U.S. Gartner survey, while a separate survey conducted by Datassential found that nearly one-third of U.S. diners said they would actually leave a restaurant if they were asked to present their vaccine card or passport. From that Datassential report, an additional 19 per cent said they would only order takeout rather than eating in if an operator asked for proof of vaccine, and only seven per cent of diners who do not plan to receive the COVID-19 vaccine would comply with vaccine requirements.

While some customers may object, though, one expert thinks vaccine passports spreading to other provinces is inevitable.

“I think the tide is really turning,” said Bryan Thomas, a research associate with the Centre for Law, Policy and Health Ethics at the University of Ottawa, told CBC. He warns that if the government doesn’t create some form of standardized proof of vaccination, the private sector likely will “and it’ll just be a wild west with untold problems.” If restaurants are left needing to seek out their own version of a vaccine certificate, it will be near-impossible to guarantee privacy, Thomas adds.

So, for restaurants and restaurant associations, it may be a case of representing the lesser of two evils.

“We would have preferred not to deal with it,” added Tremblay. “But between closing again and vaccine passports, we’ll go with vaccine passports.”