Quebec introducing vaccine passport from September 1 amid fierce debate

Quebec has confirmed it is implementing a vaccine passport system for restaurants, bars, and other non-essential services from the start of September.

Premier François Legault announced on August 5 that the province will introduce the system amid rising case numbers and the prospect of more hospitalizations and deaths in the coming weeks.

On August 10, health minister Christian Dubé confirmed that the vaccine passport will be introduced on September 1.

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The mandate will apply to certain non-essential services, including restaurants and bars as well as gyms, training facilities, and festivals. By focusing on facilities and venues with high capacity and a high rate of contact, the aim is to avoid the widespread closures that marked the first waves of COVID-19 in Quebec. 

“People who made the effort to get their two doses should be able to live a somewhat normal life,” Premier Legault said, as quoted by CBC.

How will it work?

However, although clients and patrons of restaurants and bars, will need to be vaccinated and have a QR code to prove it, the same will not be required of staff. Dubé said that mandating vaccines for staff would break labour laws.

Martin Vezina, a spokesperson for Quebec’s restaurant association, the ARQ, says restaurants are relieved they will not have to risk losing staff by enforcing vaccination.

“We don’t have many employees, or spare employees that we have if we can’t keep an unvaccinated one or who just received one dose,” Vezina said, per CTV News. “For many establishments, that will lead them to closure.”

Children under 12 will not need to provide proof of vaccination as there are no approved COVID-19 vaccines for that age group. Dubé said further details will follow regarding exemptions, such as those for people who cannot get the vaccine for medical reasons.

In doing so, Quebec will join two other provinces, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, that require two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to access certain non-essential services.

The passport will be used on a smartphone app that will be tested in two pilot projects. Dubé said the government wants to have the QR code-reading app ready for use across the province by September. People who do not have a smartphone will be able to use the paper vaccination certificates issued at vaccine centres or can print out their QR codes or request a paper version by mail. 

Businesses will need to download an application to read the QR codes and clients will need a different application to display them. Both apps should be available later this month and will be free.

Dubé indicated that he is in talks with the federal government to sync the vaccination passport with the ArriveCan app for travellers from other provinces and outside Canada.

That is of vital importance to many Quebec businesses near the Ontario border, in particular.

“Already the business we just came back from a pandemic, we’re not ready to cut our customers in half again,” said Mark Vargas, manager of Restaurant Amazonas in Gatineau, as quoted by CTV News. “Ottawa is almost like half our clientele, so we really have to work with them and hope Quebec is considering working with Ontario in some way that they can prove (vaccination) maybe.”

Fierce debate

Vaccine passports have been a topic of fierce debate in recent weeks at a time when COVID-19 has become re-termed as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Huge proportions of the cases and hospitalizations that are currently being seen are coming in people who have not been fully vaccinated.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante applauded Quebec’s announcement on Twitter, calling it “good news to ensure that our restaurateurs, our bars, our festivals do not relive the difficulties of the past year.”

The vice-president of the Quebec wing of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), François Vincent, says it is “reassuring to hear the government’s objective of avoiding a new lockdown at all costs.”

However, there are some dissenting voices.

Quebec’s civil liberties union, the Ligue des droits et libertés (LDL), says there has not been any time for a proper public debate and citing concerns about data security, reports CBC.

Meanwhile, Vezina added: “We’re still in a labour shortage to validate the vaccine passport so it will be tough and there are still questions we’ll need to ask.”

Not the first, not the last?

Quebec is far from the first jurisdiction to take such a decisive step.

As well as Manitoba and PEI, jurisdictions like France and Italy already have vaccine passport systems in place.

On August 20, San Francisco will become the first major U.S. city to mandate proof of full vaccinations for certain indoor activities including restaurants and bars.

The west-coast city will be followed by New York City in mid-September. “If you want to participate in our society fully, you’ve got to get vaccinated,” De Blasio said.

Quebec may well not be the last province to take such a firm stance, either.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was at the Montreal news conference with Legault on Thursday, said he fully supports Quebec’s decision. He also suggested he is looking to implement vaccine passports in other interested provinces to facilitate international travel.

“Canadians have understood that you need to get vaccinated to get through the pandemic. It’s not just a question of individual choice, it’s about protecting the community,” Trudeau said. 

Photo: Emilie Nadeau