Ontario vaccine passport to be introduced in late September

Following the lead of other provinces, an Ontario vaccine passport is being introduced for restaurants and some other non-essential businesses from September 22.

Premier Doug Ford and the province announced that a vaccine certificate showing proof of double vaccination will be needed to visit indoor food and drink establishments and nightclubs, as well as other businesses including casinos and bingo halls, concert venues, theatres and cinemas, sporting facilities, and sporting events.

However, it will not be needed for outdoor dining or takeout, or for retail including grocery stores.

Ford and his cabinet had spent days deliberating details of the plan, and a source told CBC/Radio-Canada that an initial proposal was rejected on August 30. Reportedly, some members of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative cabinet were against the province implementing its own vaccine certificate system.

The Ontario vaccine passport will be used alongside a government-issued ID. The province is working on an app that will combine ID and the vaccine certification, which users can show if asked for proof. The government is also developing an app for businesses to verify the contents of the QR code, according to CTV News, which will also be ready in October.

Heeding the calls to follow other provinces

Ontario’s mandated proof of vaccination will come into effect just weeks after similar measures from other provinces.

Quebec’s system went live on September 1, Manitoba’s followed on September 3, and British Columbia’s will begin on September 15, shortly before Ontario becomes the fourth province to launch a vaccination certificate.

RELATED: Quebec vaccine passport takes effect amid widespread support

Global News reports that both Alberta and Saskatchewan are opposed to the idea, and there are no plans for a vaccine passport in any of the Maritime provinces or the northern territories.

And until recently, Ford and his staff had repeatedly said that Ontario would not follow the initiatives taken in other provinces, with Ford previously saying he thought a vaccine passport would create a “split society.” But pressure from a wide range of physicians, infectious disease specialists, and business groups has changed things.

Industry support for the concept

Largely, Ontario’s beleaguered hospitality industry has long been advocating for an Ontario vaccine passport to be introduced, hailing it as one of the best ways to keep employees and customers safe.

“It’s the best solution to keep the hospitality community open, and employees and customers safe,” Tony Elenis,  president and chief executive of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel, and Motel Association (ORHMA), recently told CBC. Elenis cited the desperate need to avoid another prolonged shutdown as a primary motivation.

He added that a proof-of-vaccination system would also help hospitality businesses to find suitable employees, something many are struggling with. “A vaccine passport will help in the recruitment of workers, and also in attracting customers in indoor spaces.”

Business groups such as the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and the Toronto Region Board of Trade have also called for an Ontario vaccine passport system as a way to avoid a fourth-wave lockdown.

And recent research from Leger found that around 80 per cent of Canadians support vaccination certificates in their province. In Ontario, 53 per cent strongly support it, 25 per cent somewhat support it, and only 21 per cent are in opposition.

Concerns over the system

However, the industry has voiced concerns and advised caution over how the system is implemented.

James Rilett, vice-president of Central Canada for Restaurants Canada, told City News that restaurant operators would prefer to see a mobile app and QR code as soon as possible to make it easier for staff to interpret vaccine certificates.

“The fact that we have to wait seven weeks for a mobile app is surprising considering other provinces already have them operating and working well,” he said.

Rilett added, via CTV News: “I think there was a lot of disappointment that they weren’t able to have an app ready and the QR codes ready when it is being introduced. We have to go a month with a system where staff just aren’t sure what to accept, etc. The app exists and there is no reason it couldn’t have been ready by Sept. 22.”

Rilett added that while there is general support for the vaccine passports in the industry, it comes with an additional cost to hire and train staff to verify health records at the door. He emphasizes that the lack of detail given in the announcement has left restaurant owners “nervous.”

RELATED: Vaccination mandates: How to handle asking for proof

“The devil will be in the details, ” he said, via CTV. “I think what people will see is more lineups, it will take longer to get into the restaurant, there will be some confusion. We definitely need to train staff more, probably need to have more staff on hand. I don’t think everything has been thought through. We are a little nervous that without all the details, we are not sure how it will work. That being said, we will make it work.”

Much of the concern revolves around potential pushback from patrons, with some operators voicing fears that things could turn hostile or even aggressive.

Larry Isaacs, president of The Firkin Group of Pubs, told CTV that he is pleased that the government has stepped in to mandate vaccination but noted that there is still concern around how the policy will be executed.

“We are really concerned about the safety of all of our customers and of our staff at the same time,” he said. “We do not want to be in the middle of a vaccine passport fight. We want to take care of our guests. It has been a struggle right now to get people to come inside, to put on masks, to sit six feet apart, now we have to manage the vaccine passport.”

However, Global reports that so far in Quebec and Manitoba, where vaccine passports have already begun for restaurants, Restaurants Canada said there have been no reports of harassment.

“I think that people understand it [and the fact that] we are just enforcing what we are asking to enforce,” said vice-president Olivier Bourbeau.