Some Alberta businesses call for vaccine passport

As a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases pushes Alberta's hospitals to the brink, many local businesses are increasingly frustrated with the provincial government's refusal so far to introduce a vaccine passport program.

'Every other province is doing it,' says one brewery owner

Alberta has not followed other provinces in implementing a proof-of-vaccination system. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

As a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases pushes Alberta's hospitals to the brink, many local businesses are increasingly frustrated with the provincial government's refusal so far to introduce a vaccine passport program.

On Tuesday, Edmonton's Arcadia Brewing Co. announced it will begin requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test from its customers later this month. It joins a handful of other bars and restaurants — including Edmonton's Fleisch Delikatessen and Calgary establishments Dickens Pub and The Palomino Smokehouse — that have recently done the same.

Arcadia owner Darren McGeown said the decision "had to be made" in light of what he called the United Conservative government's lack of action.

"It doesn't look like they're going to be making the right decision to move forward with this, even though every other province is doing it," McGeown said, adding he is concerned about rising hospitalizations as well as the possibility that businesses could face another lockdown if case counts continue to surge.

"It's not the easiest decision to make, business-wise, but it's the right thing to do," McGeown said. "It's the only way to move forward."

Alberta leads the country in COVID-19 cases and only 60 per cent of Alberta's total population is fully vaccinated (70 per cent of those ages 12 and older). The province's intensive care units are filled to 87 per cent capacity, after staff were redeployed over the weekend to open up more beds.

While Quebec, B.C., Ontario and Manitoba are already implementing rules that would allow only vaccinated people to access restaurants, bars and sports events, Alberta premier Jason Kenney has repeatedly said his province won't follow suit. Instead, private businesses and organizations can make their own decisions on whether to require vaccination.

Last Friday, in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, the government of Alberta implemented a number of new measures, including a provincewide mask mandate and a new program that will reward unvaccinated individuals who get the jab with $100.

The province also ordered restaurants and bars to stop serving liquor by 10 p.m., a restriction that has many business owners seeing red.

"Our sales were down 50 per cent down as of Saturday," said PJ L'Heureux, owner of the Craft Beer Market chain, which has restaurants in Edmonton and Calgary. "We definitely feel targeted. This industry has been down this road so many times already."

L'Heureux, who also owns restaurants in Ontario and B.C., said vaccine passports in those provinces have at least given the business community some measure of certainty.

"It's pretty evident that vaccine appointments have gone up dramatically since they put that in place. And we have a confidence level that we're going to stay open, whereas in Alberta we don't have that," he said.

Ernie Tsu, owner of Calgary's Trolley 5 brewery and restaurant and president of the Alberta Hospitality Association, said his organization is surveying its members now on the passport question. While the results are not yet in, he said he believes there is "strong support" from restaurant owners for a provincially mandated program.

"Everyone is frustrated and extremely angry," Tsu said. "On a personal level, I would be in favour of it, if it meant restaurants could operate without restrictions."

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The Calgary Chamber of Commerce is also in favour of a vaccine passport system. President and chief executive Deborah Yedlin said in an emailed statement that businesses are looking for a "safe way forward" that does not involve restrictions or limit their ability to recover.

"The Calgary business community has told us vaccine certification will help keep them, employees and customers safe, and prevent further lockdowns," Yedlin said.

However, Jonathan Alward, prairies director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said not all business owners feel that way. He said a survey of CFIB members in August indicated only about 40 per cent of Alberta-based respondents support a vaccine passport, even when weighed against the possibility of another lockdown.

"There's a lot of valid reasons why business owners would have reservations," Alward said. "There's a lot of grey area about requiring mandatory vaccinations of staff, for example ... If you're a restaurant, you just can't ask your staff to work from home."

Businesses also have practical concerns around the administration and policing of such a program. And some fear harassment or pushback from the public, Alward said.

"What we've heard from some of our members in places where this has already happened is that your staff ends up taking undue punishment from some customers," he said.

"So I think it's right that any province looking at doing this — whether you're talking about the government of Alberta or elsewhere — really make sure that they're doing it as a last resort."

With files from CBC Calgary


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