New Brunswick

Pandemic restrictions are due for a rethink, civil liberties group says

The announcement two weeks ago that grocery stores could choose to ask for proof of vaccination has sparked a broader conversation about civil liberties, and about whether it is time to revisit the level of restrictions we're willing to accept.

At two-year mark, it's time for individuals to take more responsibility for managing risk, advocate says

Cara Zwibel, a director with the Canadian Civilian Liberties Association, says the restrictions brought in almost two years ago don't fit well with where we are now in the pandemic. (CBC)

The announcement two weeks ago that New Brunswick grocery stores could now opt to ask customers for proof of vaccination caught many by surprise.

During the introduction of the government's COVID-19 "winter action plan" on Dec. 3, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard stated that retail outlets, salons and grocery stores must enforce physical distancing — or could instead opt to require proof of vaccination from all patrons.

The move to include grocery stores, which are considered essential, in proof-of-vaccination checks prompted a wave of questions and criticism, particularly on social media.

Health Minister Dorothy Shephard has since clarified that statement, saying that there is "no intent" on major retailers' part to ask for proof-of-vaccination, and retailers have said the same, with Sobeys spokesperson Paul Wyke confirming the chain will not be asking customers for proof of vaccination at its New Brunswick stores.

But the mere fact that the subject was raised has sparked a broader conversation about civil liberties, and about whether we have reached a stage in the pandemic where we should revisit the level of restrictions we're willing to accept.

Cara Zwibel, ​director of the fundamental freedoms program with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the suggestion that the unvaccinated won't have access to essentials such as food and medicine is worrisome.

"We've been concerned for a long time about premising access to public spaces on vaccination status and what the objective has been throughout," Zwibel told Information Morning Moncton on Monday.

While it might have been "easier to justify" such rules when talking about movie theatres, restaurants or other places that are considered non-essential, it's much harder to justify those kind of restrictions when talking about access to food,  medicine and other essentials.

"The government should make sure that our access to those things are facilitated by the rules," Zwibel said.

Instead, "there might be a signal in these new rules that suggests they are freer to do it now," she said. "So that's a problem."

Early on, the objective of requiring proof of vaccination in certain spaces was to encourage vaccination, Zwibel said. (Alberto Pezzali/The Associated Press)

A different stage of the pandemic

Almost two years in, we have reached "a different stage" of the pandemic, one in which some of the rules are no longer a comfortable fit and are in need of alterations.

Early on, the objective behind requiring proof of vaccination in certain spaces was to encourage vaccination, Zwibel said.

But she believes that almost everyone who could be incentivized to be vaccinated has now been incentivized.

"So I don't know whether these changes are going to increase vaccination rates or just cause the people who are still hesitant … to dig in and be more resentful," Zwibel said.

"At this point, we need to start putting some responsibility back on individuals to make decisions about how they manage risk … rather than giving our government all the power to decide how risk can be mitigated."

Zwibel noted she is keenly aware of ongoing seriousness of the COVID-19 situation, with rising case counts and the spiralling threat of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

"But I also wonder at what point people are not going to be willing to live under these conditions," she said.

"We do still have a situation where governments are dictating how many people we can have in our homes. That's a big departure in a liberal democracy … and I think people may be starting to lose patience with that and really wonder how much longer we can do this." 

Given that it seems clear that the virus isn't going away anytime soon, Zwibel said, people should be thinking about "what we're willing to live with for the long haul." 

As a longer-term solution, she also thinks governments should be investing in health-care systems, many of which were operating at or close to capacity even before the pandemic.

In the short term, she'd like to see widespread access to rapid testing so people can make better decisions about whether to gather with others rather than having government make these calls.

She also thinks people should be reaching out to their elected representatives and raising these issues with them. 

"We have to give people the tools to protect themselves," she said. 

"And we do need to put more power in people's own hands to make decisions for themselves." 

Information Morning Moncton

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