By Tom Nightingale
Ontario’s mandatory proof-of-vaccination system was scrapped on March 1. Whatever one thinks of the mandates that had been in place for nearly six months, the fact is that this is another decision made by the government at relatively short notice for one of the most beleaguered industries impacted during the pandemic.
“It took some people by surprise that Ontario would go from complete lockdown a few weeks ago in January to full capacity, with no need to prove vaccination status anymore, and with the promise of a revaluation over masks after March break,” Chris Knight, a senior consultant at restaurant consultancy firm the Fifteen Group, tells RestoBiz. “It’s essentially a complete 180.”
Certainly, it will be a seismic shift for many, and it already seems to be splitting opinion in the industry.
Most plan to scrap the policy
The majority of restaurants will likely go with the flow and scrap the system. After all, it was a policy forced on them by governmental mandate, leaving them not only to face the costs of implementing the system, adjusting their service accordingly, and training staff, but also to bear the brunt of backlash from unhappy customers.
The Ontario Restaurant, Hotel, and Motel Association (ORHMA) submitted a poll to its members to gauge the industry’s stance on removing the proof of vaccination requirement after the government’s announcement. ORHMA’s results indicated that 81.7 per cent of operators removed the proof of vaccination requirement on March 1.
The reasons for scrapping it are evident. Restaurants have had to follow government and public health’s direction to their cost and chagrin for two years now; most will likely decide it makes sense to keep doing so if it represents another restriction lifted.
“Restaurants are really tired of having to manage the protocols and having to deal with the complaints and it just becomes another guest experience component that they have to manage that really they have had no say or control over,” notes Knight.
Almost all of the restaurant owners and operators to whom RestoBiz reached out shared this sentiment.
Said one: “We’ve always said we’re going to be consistent with what the government and public health have advised and directed. It served its purpose, but I think everyone just wants to get on.”
There were other reasons cited, too.
Noted another restaurant operator: “If we decide to continue to ask for proof of vaccination, then we are allowing our personal opinions to be known and our beliefs come into play. We feel that as a business owner, you cannot take sides. Personally, we feel the safest way to run our business and appease the greatest population is to follow what is laid out for us.”
Knight notes the Fifteen Group has seen consumers come down on both sides, though, and there are those who may want that reassurance that they are in an environment with people who have been vaccinated.
More complicated for others
For restaurants owners and operators, too, it is not as simple as following governmental advice.
Nearly one in 10 (9.5 per cent) respondents to ORHMA said they would remove the proof of vaccination requirement at a later date, and 8.7 per cent said they would keep the proof of vaccination requirement indefinitely.
Some have been forthcoming with that inclination.
The Fickle Pickle in Stouffville, Ont. released a statement on Twitter explaining that it had made “the very difficult decision to continue using proof of vaccination for dine-in.” For the owners, that decision lay in the fact that one of their prominent staff members has a compromised immune system and needs extra protection.
Another, the De La Terre Bakery + Café in St. Catharines, told City News that it felt the decision to lift the mandate was “premature” and said that maintaining the policy feels like “a fairly small price” to pay to ensure both staff and customers feel safe.
Safety concerns abound
Meanwhile, The Rosedale Diner in Toronto also went public. Owner Gil Filar told Toronto Life that he will “respect the freedom of people who don’t want to come here, just like they should respect my freedom to make this choice.”
Filar noted that March 1 felt too early to be lifting such a measure, and he received a great deal of positive feedback from conversations with customers about keeping a proof-of-vaccination policy in place.
“I don’t want someone to come into the diner and end up in the ICU,” he added. “We have a lot of regulars, and many of them told me that they were going to stop dining inside restaurants as of March 1. So, we can be a safe place for those people. My point is that there are plenty of restaurants all over the city that won’t be requiring passports, so we are making the choice to be one of the ones that does.”
The threat of backlash
Given the strong, often violent and abusive, backlash that many restaurants have had to face in response to the government-enforced mandates like mask-wearing and proof of vaccination, is there a concern that the retaliation will intensify now that a continuation of the policy will be a matter of choice for operators?
Filar told blogTO that he has already seen some examples of that. “Some throw tantrums, some yell at us, some abuse us on social media or write horrible reviews even if they haven’t come to our establishment,” he said. “They’re definitely the loud minority. We explain calmly that this is our chosen mandate, that it protects our customers and our staff, and it’s their prerogative to not have a passport, as it’s ours to require one.”
Knight warns that operators have to anticipate that there’s going to be some pushback. You can’t make everybody happy, that’s one thing that’s become clear over the last couple of years. Any restaurant that keeps a proof-of-vaccination policy in place may open up themselves to individuals who are going to argue it and fight it.
Staff consultations are key
Ultimately, a crucial aspect is ensuring that restaurants have done their due diligence internally before making the decision.
Knight stresses that the key question for restaurant owners and operators must be how staff feel about it.
“This is an industry that’s already hard-pressed for employees right now, so if employees want protection and a restaurant decides to drop its proof-of-vaccination policy, I don’t know how staff would feel about going into work in a place that that doesn’t have that peace of mind,” he says. “You would hope any restaurant operator is making their decision based on the information that’s available to them – the feedback they’re getting from staff and customers.”
Going forward, internal communication will be crucial. Staff and customers deserve and need to know why a decision is being made, and clarity and transparency will only ease the process.
On a final note, Knight emphasizes that another core pillar must be consistency.
“If they’re going to request proof of vaccination, restaurants cannot drop that standard on a Friday night when it gets busy. That will just open them up to criticism and the type of backlash they will be hoping to minimize.”
The goalposts are likely to keep moving, with a review of the mask mandate next on the agenda in a few weeks. As we move down the road towards what is hopefully a sustained reopening and a profitable summer, restaurants will still have to navigate obstacles in the water.