Alberta restaurateurs eager, anxious about possible end to vaccine passport program

As Alberta considers winding down its vaccine passport system by the end of the month, small businesses enforcing the current rules say the changes can’t come soon enough.

Premier has promised proof of vaccination program would be first rule to go

Ernie Tsu, president of the Alberta Hospitality Association, says the easing of restrictions may come too late for some struggling small businesses. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

As Alberta considers winding down its vaccine passport program by the end of the month, small businesses enforcing the current rules say the changes can't come soon enough.

Even if all COVID-19 public health restrictions are lifted by spring, it will be too late for many restaurants, Ernie Tsu, co-owner of Trolley 5 Brewpub in Calgary, said Thursday.

Tsu said many operators are on the brink after contending with punishing debt loads accrued during months of pandemic restrictions. He said his own restaurant has taken a financial hit, forcing him to cut back on staffing.

"March is going to be too late for a lot of businesses out there that are quite frankly, hemorrhaging right now," said Tsu, who is also president of the Alberta Hospitality Association.

"We've seen a couple of closures already and we'll probably see more if we can't get out of this a little bit quicker."

Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday he is optimistic the province will be able to relax some public health measures by the end of February, providing hospital pressures decline.

Kenney said restrictions would be lifted in phases. The restrictions exemption program, with its QR code to verify vaccination status, would be among the first to go, he said.

Tsu said small business owners are increasingly frustrated with the burden of enforcing pandemic restrictions in their dining rooms, bars and concert venues.

"Mental health-wise, physically, financially,  it's all coming to a head."

Alberta is not alone in eyeing a restrictions-free spring. As case numbers begin to plateau, other jurisdictions including Ontario, B.C. and Quebec have signalled plans to loosen public health measures.

Alberta's restrictions exemption program, in place since September, requires anyone who wants to enter participating events or businesses to show they are fully vaccinated or provide proof of a negative test.

'Fear factor'

The restaurant industry is excited to see the program end, said Mark Petros, who owns Nick's Steakhouse and Pizza in Calgary.

Take-out deliveries have kept his family business afloat, but a "fear factor" around COVID-19 has emptied his dining room, Petros said.

"People are still afraid," he said. "And it's killing us, it's killing as an industry." 

He said he won't hesitate to open his dining room to customers when vaccine passports are gone.

However, he said he's torn about the broader ramifications of ending restrictions.

"We don't want to overload the hospitals. We don't want to overload the ICUs. I know that. I don't want it either," he said. "It's just so frustrating to be here." 

Paul Shufelt, owner of Workshop Eatery and Woodshed Burgers, says he is cautiously optimistic about the possible easing of restrictions for Alberta businesses. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Paul Shufelt, who owns Robert Spencer Hospitality Group, which operates a handful of Edmonton restaurants including Workshop Eatery and Woodshed Burgers, said Kenney's comments left him cautiously optimistic.

Shufelt said his businesses are struggling. He hopes loosened restrictions will bring customers back.

"There's always that stress and fear that, you know, will the pandemic sweep through our business if we're a little bit more lax with the rules?" he said.

"But I would like to think that the steps that we've taken as a society over the last two years have really allowed us to be in a position to take more calculated risks."

Roller-coaster fears

Kris Harvey, an operating partner at The Chvrch of John, an Edmonton restaurant and bar that also operates as theatre space and art gallery, said he would like to see the REP program maintained indefinitely.

He closed his bar months ago, unable to make ends meet as the province placed restrictions on gatherings, dancing, live music and serving times for alcohol. 

As the fifth wave recedes, the REP program should be altered and expanded, Harvey said.

Businesses involved in the program should be provided additional PPE and rapid tests — and be granted protection from any closures that may be brought in if cases rise again, he said. 

"The biggest fear is that we are going to be opening too soon," said Harvey, who also serves as co-chair of the Edmonton Independent Hospitality Group. 

"It feels, very aptly this week, like Groundhog Day again."

Kenney aims to begin easing restrictions this month

5 months ago
Duration 2:48
Premier Jason Kenney says as pressure decreases on the health-care system so too will province’s public health restrictions, starting with the Restrictions Exemption Program.


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. She loves helping people tell their stories on issues ranging from health care to the courts. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Wallis has a bachelor of journalism (honours) from the University of King's College in Halifax, N.S. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.