Requiring vaccine passports to shop at big-box stores hurts those on Quebec's margins, critics warn

Quebec Premier François Legault said last week the measure will only apply to large-surface stores as they are well-staffed and better equipped to check vaccine passports at the door.

Overcoming health-care, language barriers a better way to reach unvaccinated, say anti-poverty groups

Quebecers who are not adequately vaccinated against COVID-19 will be barred from entering big retail outlets like Costco and Wal-Mart, starting Jan. 24. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Ivy Liu said her monthly trip to a Costco outlet in Montreal will feel safer once customers have to flash their proof of vaccination at the door under new Quebec rules that go into effect on Jan. 24.

"Just knowing that everybody is wearing their mask and is vaccinated, yes, absolutely, I feel a lot more comfortable," said Liu.

But not all shoppers agree.

"I don't think it should be a requirement," said Mary Jacobs, who worries that low-income families will suffer the most, as they tend to shop at big-box stores to save money on groceries and everyday needs.

In a bid to persuade COVID-19 vaccine holdouts to get the jab, Quebec Premier François Legault announced last week the government is expanding the vaccine mandate to include large-surface retail stores that don't sell primarily groceries, including Costco, Canadian Tire and Wal-Mart.

The premier said big-box stores were targeted because they are well-staffed and better equipped to check vaccine passports.

However, Jean-Guy Côté, executive director of the Quebec Retail Council, said in the face of the Omicron variant's spread, large retailers are up against their own staffing challenges.

"There are more than 25,000 people missing from the retail sector in Quebec. That's a lot of people," he said. Having to deal with angry unvaccinated shoppers is another concern, said Côté.

Quebec Public Health data indicates nearly 13 per cent of Quebecers over the age of five aren't adequately vaccinated, yet they represent 46 per cent of the COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care units, and 32 per cent of regular hospital admissions.

Maude Laberge, a population health researcher at the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CHUM), said Quebec's decision to expand the vaccination passport requirement to big retail outlets is aimed at driving vaccination rates up and reducing the strain on hospitals — as well as protecting the unvaccinated.

"For people who have not yet gotten their first shot, it's also about limiting the risk for them to catch COVID because Omicron is just so transmissible," Laberge said.

Isolated people already face stigma

However, advocates for people living in poverty and isolation say not all unvaccinated Quebecers should be painted with the same brush.

Richard Veenstra, the head of the charity Mission Inclusion, said measures like the vaccine passport can further stigmatize people who are already living isolated lives.

"I have the concern that we are building some sort of label on this 10-ish per cent of the population and sort of separating them from the rest of society," he said.

Not everyone who is unvaccinated is an anti-vaxxer, said Veenstra, whose Montreal-based charity is focused on caring for some of the island's most vulnerable and marginalized people.

He said there are other factors preventing some people from getting the jab, including language barriers, lack of access to health care, isolation or health illiteracy.

He said making vaccine passports mandatory to shop at big-box stores can reduce choices for people who already have limited options.

Homeless people keep warm in big retail stores

Virginie Larivière, spokesperson for a group aimed at eliminating poverty, the Collectif pour Québec sans pauvreté, agrees.  She said people living on a low income tend to shop around for deals, including at larger stores.

But she said passport requirement will be most harmful to homeless people, especially in winter.

"You go in a store just to walk inside sometimes to protect yourself from the cold and to get a bit of rest," she said.

Larivière said many of those who live on the street are dealing with so many issues that the vaccine is not their priority.

She said there are better avenues for the government to take, such as improving access to the vaccines and improving outreach.

with files from Sharon Yonan-Renold and Émilie Warren