British Columbia

End of vaccine pass program in B.C. has restaurants ready to welcome more dine-in customers

B.C.'s COVID-19 vaccine card program ended Friday, drawing a mixed reaction between business owners looking forward to welcoming more customers and vulnerable people uncertain if lifting the measures are a good idea.

Restaurant owners say they expect sales to increase, but concern among some that measure is lifting too soon

A vaccine card is scanned outside of Jam Cafe in Vancouver in September 2021. Starting today, COVID-19 vaccine passports are no longer required to dine in at restaurants in B.C. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

B.C.'s COVID-19 vaccine card program ended Friday, drawing a mixed reaction between business owners looking forward to welcoming more customers and vulnerable people uncertain if lifting the measures are a good idea.

Many restaurateurs, in particular, say they are looking forward to hosting more diners without having to enforce public health guidelines.

"The industry is happy to see it go," said Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association. 

"In our view, the vaccination cards have served its purpose. We participated as an industry to encourage people to get vaccinated."

Tostenson said he believes 99 per cent of restaurants will no longer check for vaccination status.

Restaurants tired of fighting with patrons

Amy Lashek, owner of Dolly's Fish Market in Prince Rupert, said the removal of the vaccine passport will make work life easier for her staff.

"A lot of patrons were rude or not accepting of the fact that we were checking for passes," Lashek told CBC News.

The owner of Dolly's Fish Market in Prince Rupert said her staff are tired of dealing with customers upset by having to show vaccine cards under B.C.'s now-expired public health orders. (Matt Allen/CBC)

"We were hit hard with the vaccine passes and there were a lot of people that frequently came to our restaurant that were no longer allowed to come."

She said she's expecting sales to increase as more customers return to dining in. 

Program no longer needed, Dr. Henry says

The vaccine card program was first introduced on Sept. 13 and required anyone who wanted to attend concerts, sporting events, movie, restaurants, gyms and other indoor spaces to present proof they had received first one, and then two, doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

At the time, the province was working to reduce the load on hospitals as primarily unvaccinated people filled emergency rooms.

Now, levels of vaccination are high enough that the cards are no longer needed from a public health standpoint, said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

B.C. will drop its mandatory vaccine card system this Friday. There will also be a fourth round of vaccine doses for elderly and immunocompromised British Columbians. For more on this, we reached provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

"We have a very strong level of protection from vaccinations across our communities, so it's really time to sunset it," she said in an interview on CBC's The Early Edition.

"We're not seeing break-through hospitalizations in people who have that third dose of the vaccine, particularly in people under 60."

Just over half of eligible British Columbians have received three doses of vaccination, according to provincial data.

According to numbers released by the province, unvaccinated people continue to account for the largest share of deaths, critical-care patients and hospitalizations related to COVID-19.

The province is still encouraging people to get vaccinated and has started distributing fourth doses for vulnerable populations, including those over 70.

Proof of immunization will still be required in federally regulated places, such as airplanes, and in long-term care and assisted living facilities.

Asked if she could foresee a scenario where public health measures such as masking or vaccine card mandates could return, Henry said "not in the short term."

"The only thing that I could see is if we had the emergence of a new strain of this virus that was able to evade our vaccines and cause serious or very severe illness in a lot of people."

Joanna Unger, who is immunocompromised, says the vaccine card program allowed her to feel safe enough to enjoy dining out at restaurants. (Baneet Braich/CBC News)

Vulnerable people uncertain

However, some vulnerable people and experts are uncertain if lifting the measures is a good idea.

Immunocompromised people like Joanna Unger said having the extra layer of protection was comforting, and it allowed her to enjoy dining out and going to the movie theatre again.

Now, she says, she feels less safe going to public spaces.

"I'll probably pull back on things that I'm doing, I'll do more stuff outside and maybe less going into restaurants,"she said.

Crossroads Brewing and Distilling in Prince George is owned by physician Daryl Leiski, who says he would like to continue the COVID-19 vaccination passport program until the end of April. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC News)

Daryl Leiski, a physician and owner of Crossroads Brewing and Distilling in Prince George, said he would like to continue using the vaccine passport program at least until the end of April.

"I think there will be a bit of an uptick in unvaccinated people getting the virus," said Leiski. "I think it's important to keep our patrons safe and to come to a place knowing that everybody is vaccinated in that place."

He said he will make a decision on whether he will continue to implement the mandate after discussing it with his staff.

"I might lose some patrons but I think for the community, I got to put my other hat on."

'We're making the same errors'

Dr. Lyne Filiatrault, a retired emergency room doctor, said the end of the vaccine card and masking requirement sends the wrong message as the highly transmissible BA.2 subvariant of Omicron is spreading quickly.

"We think there's going to be another BA.2 wave and we don't think it's going to be any different than what other jurisdictions are seeing, like Ontario and Quebec, because we're making the same errors,'' said Filiatrault, who speaks for Protect Our Province B.C., a group of health-care professionals, scientists and advocates calling for evidence-based policies.

Filiatrault said she's concerned about a rise in hospitalizations similar to the one in the United Kingdom, where, she said, restrictions were lifted too quickly and people were reinfected with COVID-19.

Fifty-nine per cent of British Columbians aged 18 and up have received a third dose of vaccine, which Filiatrault said isn't high enough as BA.2 spreads.

With files from Jason Peters, Matt Allen, The Early Edition and The Canadian Press