Vaccination mandates: How to handle asking for proof

Updated September 16

Vaccination mandates are the topic on everyone’s lips right now.

In Canada, numerous provinces beginning with Quebec and going on to include others such as B.C. and later Ontario and Alberta have either already introduced or have announced the implementation of vaccine certificates.

This move, which has also been seen in some European countries and major U.S. cities including San Francisco and New York City, has both supporters and opponents.

Chief among the concerns is how restaurant operators will implement such a system in practice. Throughout the pandemic, foodservice and hospitality workers have faced dissent — sometimes aggressive or even violent — for attempting to enforce even less drastic COVID-19 related measures such as mask mandates.

RELATED: Is asking for proof of vaccination the new restaurant normal?

Many managers, owners, operators, and staff will be looking for guidance on how to proceed.

Provinces like Ontario have released regulations and guidance to support operators in implementing vaccination mandates, and the U.S. National Restaurant Association (NRA) and Restaurants Canada have also both provided advice for the industry.

Primarily, the advice notes that restaurants must comply with a state, provincial, or municipal mandate requiring them to ask for proof of vaccination unless that mandate is challenged in court and a judge says otherwise.

Facing unvaccinated customers

The NRA advises that, in the eventuality of being informed by a customer that they are not vaccinated to the required level (or if they have unvaccinated children with them), operators and/or staff should explain that the restaurant is prohibited by law from serving or seating them indoors due to the mandate.

It adds that such guests can still be offered a seat outside, a to-go version of their meal, or other placatory measures such as a coupon for a meal or voucher to return at another time when the restaurant can accommodate them.

While this may seem common sense, the association stresses that restaurants should not ask customers why they are not vaccinated, or request proof of a disability or doctor’s note that explains their lack of vaccination.

Restaurants Canada reiterates that if there is no mandatory proof of vaccine system in a restaurant’s jurisdiction, any refusal to serve an unvaccinated person must be based on legitimate health and safety complaints. For instance, refusal to serve an unvaccinated indoor diner is more likely to be reasonable than a walk-up customer who is social distancing and wearing full PPE.

Preparing staff

The most vital thing will be educating and training your staff on how to handle the change.

The NRA recommends:

  • Holding shift meetings to explain exactly what staff are required to do, what they are and are not permitted to ask or say, and the scenarios they should prepare for
  • Ensuring operators and staff understand the local order, including a legal interpretation of the requirements for admitting anyone and what proof(s) of vaccine will be acceptable and what staff are and are not allowed to ask. 
  • Ensuring everyone understands what constitutes acceptable proof of vaccine. Aside from physical cards, is there a vaccine app of some kind? Is a copy from a health care patient portal acceptable? Are photos of proof acceptable? Be consistent. 
  • Considering how should the policy should be conveyed to guests. The request could be made by a host at the door or the first contact behind a service counter. A manager should be available if the guests demonstrate any type of aggressive speech or behaviour. 
  • Developing a plan for what to do if the customer has no proof or the proof provided is not acceptable. Make staff aware of the options they can offer customers who have no proof. 
  • Developing a plan to protect employees from disgruntled customers, including having a manager or serniority figure on hand and/or designating one member of personnel to handle all conflict inquiries afterward.

Communicating the policy

Communication will also be key. Every customer who tries to walk through the door should be in no doubt that they need to be vaccinated to sit inside. If customers have questions, provide a means of contact. List service alternatives for the unvaccinated, including customers with children.

The NRA suggests:

  • Adding an explainer in all social media posts
  • Adding a website popup on a restaurant’s homepage
  • Listing the policy on online menu apps and third-party ordering apps, as well as review sites, and making sure it appears when guests use online reservation platforms
  • Training staff to explain the policy over the phone
  • Putting signage on the front door and in the entry

Employees and vaccinations

The faster vaccinations take place, the sooner operators can welcome more guests — and staff — into their restaurant.

Restaurants Canada stresses that while operators cannot currently mandate that workers get vaccinated, they can encourage and incentivize receiving the vaccine. To encourage employees to get vaccinations without making them mandatory, the NRA suggests offering them time off with pay to cover their costs of transportation and eliminate their fear of lost wages. To qualify for the paid time off, ask employees to furnish proof of vaccination. If some employees still seem reluctant, put them in touch with trusted, third-party experts to provide information about vaccinations and who can answer any questions they have.

Operators can also treat employees differently for some purposes depending on vaccine status, notes Restaurants Canada, and they can make it company policy that employees should be vaccinated, to a reasonable degree. Valid exemptions would include health or religious reasons.

Restaurateurs may also give preference to bringing vaccinated employees back into the workplace over unvaccinated workers, again taking into account human rights exemptions.

Restaurants Canada also notes that a frontline foodservice worker could “very realistically” be put on an unpaid leave of absence or lose their job if they choose not to be vaccinated when they are recalled to work, barring human rights infringements or medical/religious exemptions.

For more information and advice, consider seeking out your federal or local restaurant association or medical/legal advice. Several provinces have also released their own guidelines for enforcing proof of vaccination policies, such as Ontario’s handbook.