Business and restaurant owners left confused, frustrated with rollout of vaccine passport

Businesses and restaurants in Toronto are saying they're confused and frustrated with the province's vaccine rollout plan, saying there are many unanswered questions regarding enforcement, verification, and financial support.

'After the fact' release of digital app among several concerns

Firkin Group of Pubs president Larry Isaacs has raised several issues he has with the passport rollout. (CBC)

The provincial government's vaccine passport rollout is a source of confusion and frustration, restaurant and business owners said.

In an announcement on Sept. 1, Premier Doug Ford, joined by Health Minister Christine Elliott, chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore, and Associate Minister of Digital Government Kaleed Rasheed unveiled the province's vaccine passport plan. The vaccine passports will take effect on Sept. 22, while a digital verification app follows a month later on Oct. 22.

On Tuesday, Elliott, Moore, and Rasheed held another press conference to announce some details of the vaccine passport system including where it needs to be used, what exemptions exist, and what format it will take.

It's left weary restaurant and business owners confused and frustrated due to what they say is a lack of clear communication and simplicity.

"It puts a lot of onus on the businesses," said Firkin Group of Pubs president Larry Isaacs. "We were hoping for something more simplistic."

Isaacs raises several issues he has with the passport rollout. He doesn't understand why the app is being launched "after the fact," he's frustrated that young servers and hosts who are employed at his and other restaurants have to "identify and determine if [the vaccine passports] are fraudulent or real."

Wanted seat at the table

And it creates friction between customers and the businesses, he added.

"We'd like to see a stand from the government," Isaacs said. "We would've thought we'd be at the table with the government."

At a press conference Tuesday, Rasheed told reporters that his office had been consulting with businesses in developing the vaccine passport app, but provided no details.

Isaacs is also questioning why restaurants and businesses now have to pay for security and QR readers, after 18 months of scarce revenue.

"They're not making it simple enough," he said.

Jacob Wharton-Shukster is the owner of Restaurant Chantecler. (CBC)

Restaurant Chantecler owner Jacob Wharton-Shukster is pleased to see a "common sense policy" with the vaccine passports, but he's concerned with the implementation.

"The rollout of the vaccine passport itself is a bit of a problem," he said. "And certainly it's going to make enforcement a challenge for various establishments."

Wharton-Shukster wonders why the government — who he believes was aware of the possibility of vaccine certification for "quite some time" — hasn't spent its funds allocated for the pandemic response to support businesses during the rollout.

The delay in the rollout from when the province partially reopened has caused some businesses to implement their own policies, which he said made them the target of protesters denying the efficacy of vaccines. Noting that like health-care workers, restaurant staff have been harassed.

"It remains to be seen what's going to happen," Wharton-Shukster said, adding he's hoping for support from police services and municipalities.

NDP leader wants safety zones

Ontario NDP and opposition leader Andrea Horwath said the premier has the province "crawling the last mile of this pandemic" in a scathing statement saying his "half-measures" embolden the anti-vaccine protestors.

She is calling for safety zone legislation protecting restaurants, businesses, and hospitals.

Elliott, in Tuesday's press conference, suggested disruptions will be "few and far between," adding that any business that feels threatened should call 911.

Her office said Wednesday her statement matches Canada's Criminal Code's guidance that police be contacted to confront violent acts and threats.

"I don't know where the minister of health gets her rose-tinted glasses from," Horwath said in response. "I'm quite concerned, and businesses are concerned too."

Toronto Police Service said 911 is for emergencies only.

"As mentioned by the health minister, by-law officers are responsible for ensuring compliance," TPS spokesperson Connie Osborne said. "911 is for emergencies only and should only be used when there is an immediate threat or a crime in progress, such as a physical assault."

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp