Request for proof of vaccine simple for some restaurant staff, 'exhausting' for others: Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist Andrew Coppolino spoke to a number of restaurant owners in Waterloo region about the new rules where staff need to ask for proof of COVID-19 vaccination before allowing people to dine indoors. The reactions of staff and customers are mixed.

'We have customers who have no problem' while others get 'agitated and violent,' says Mynor Garcia

Tim Borys, a co-owner at Lancaster Smokehouse in Kitchener, says most customers adjusted quickly to the proof of vaccination requirement. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

To the cheeky sign you might see posted at restaurants — "no shirt, no shoes, no service" — we can add "no vaccination passport" for the time being.  

It has been a couple of weeks since vaccination proof and personal ID "check-ins" have been required for dining-in at restaurants and other businesses too.

The government requirements came about quickly and with few suggestions for restaurants on how to implement the passport and how to deal with customers who refuse to show their documents.

While there has been some backlash, restaurants report that most customers are complying, according to Tim Borys, a co-owner at Lancaster Smokehouse.

"So far, so good. It's funny how quickly people adjust. Most people have their wallets and phones ready, or their passport printed off. For our front-of-house staff it's more or less a script that they've memorized," he said.

At TWH Social at the Walper Hotel, director of food and beverage Michael Hopwood agreed that the process so far has gone smoothly.

"I am personally surprised about that but also glad. However, it's a strain on labour because that's an extra control on top of contact tracing," Hopwood said.

Karen Elmer-Hammond at Levetto Pizza & Pasta Bar in Waterloo has also had primarily positive encounters with customers, she said, adding that they've had their records ready when they arrive — with one notable exception.

"We had an email from one lady who doesn't approve and will not be supporting us anymore," said Elmer-Hammond.

People split on vaccine requirements

For the most part, I've found that the process of showing proof of vaccination and ID to be fairly quick and seamless. Larger businesses have more robust staffing and systems in place, while smaller mom-and-pops generally can't afford that and the check-in might be a bit slower.

The response has been mixed for Mynor Garcia, owner of America Latina Grocery & Eatery on Victoria Street. Uncertain at first as to how to handle the requirements, Garcia closed the dine-in section of his business. But after seeing sales slump, he recently re-opened.

"I feel there is a split on how people feel about the requirements. We have customers who have no problem, yet you still find people who claim that we're not allowed to ask for a piece of ID. We have encountered a few scenarios where people get borderline agitated and violent toward the staff," said Garcia.

It's a concern for all frontline restaurant workers when it comes to dealing with upset and possibly aggressive customers who don't agree, for whatever reason, with the rules for dining in.

For the businesses, it's all or nothing with the requirements: restaurateurs suggest that the customers show the documents or place an order for take-out, or take a seat on the patio or just leave the premises.

Mynor Garcia, owner of America Latina Grocery & Eatery on Victoria Street in Kitchener, said he was uncertain at first as to how to handle the requirements and closed his dine-in section. But after his sales slumped, he recently re-opened to indoor dining. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Call in a manager

Protecting staff has been paramount for Borys and the Lancaster management. He says part-time or inexperienced staff shouldn't have to deal with an agitated customer and he has a simple process.

"If anything goes off normal, then staff are directed to contact a manager," Borys said.

Mynor agrees part of the issue for America Latina might be that it is both a sit-down restaurant and a grocery store, which might blur the lines: to enter the former, proof of vaccination and personal ID is required; for the latter, only a mask is required.

Needless to say, he's not impressed with some customer behaviour.

"They leave yelling and swearing and saying that they are never coming back. They say they will make sure the business is going down," says Garcia.

He also shares that there has been some subterfuge as well.

"Some of my customers I know by name, so when I see a proof of vaccination and ID with a different name I say, sorry, but that is not how this works," he said.

Asking for proof 'exhausting'

At Thirsty's Bar & Grill, owner Liz Cunha says the masking policy and social distancing was initially a struggle but calls the vaccination pass "exhausting."

"It's a big fail on the government for imposing something on restaurants, again, before they have all their ducks in a row," she said.

"We have very limited patio seating, but some of my guests who are vaccinated prefer to sit outside. They're enjoying their meals when someone grabbing take-out from a business next door starts laughing at them and says, 'Looks like you're stuck outside, losers. Now we all know who the anti-vaxxers are.'"

It's safe to say that there has been an impact on traffic to restaurants, at least in the short term; like Garcia, Elmer-Hammond at Levetto has noticed slower sales.

"I have not seen it this slow in a long time, and I'm trying to figure out if it has to do with the restrictions or not. I would have thought the people that were afraid to come to the restaurants would be more comfortable coming out now," she said.

It begs the question of what the implementation of the proposed QR-code system will look like when it is said to be introduced later this month.

Garcia said he didn't receive information and guidelines from health authorities for the current process until two days after the requirements were enacted; he's skeptical about the next steps.

"Unfortunately, I have no confidence. I honestly think we jumped the gun to start requesting this proof when there was no real system in place. Government offices are behind when letting us know how to proceed."