Cross Country Checkup

Restaurant, bar owners have mixed feelings about vaccine passports

Vaccine passports — physical or digital documentation offering proof of immunization against COVID-19 — have been touted as a way to reopen the economy. A restaurant and a bar owner say that while they support the idea in principle, any approach must be equitable.

Documentation should not be required unless Canadians 'fairly offered' chance to be immunized: restaurateur

A restaurant and a bar owner tell Cross Country Checkup that while they support using vaccine passports as a step to reopening the economy, any approach must be equitable. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Toronto restaurateur Vito Marinuzzi says that he would welcome the introduction of vaccine passports as part of a plan to reopen his industry — as long as they're implemented fairly.

"The way it rolls out is what's going to make it acceptable, what's going to make it fair, what's going to make me say yes to it," said Marinuzzi, who co-owns three restaurants in the Greater Toronto Area.

Only a small percentage of Canadians have received a COVID-19 vaccine, and Marinuzzi says he would consider implementing a vaccine passport requirement only when the shot is "fairly offered" to Canadians.

"If you choose not to have it and I'm [requiring] a COVID passport to enter my business, you made that choice and I made that choice to exclude you — and I'm OK with that because we were both offered the vaccine," he told Cross Country Checkup.

Vaccine passports — physical or digital documentation offering proof of immunization against COVID-19 — have been touted as a way to reopen the economy. The certification could be required for travel, and even to access restaurants, bars and entertainment venues.

Several jurisdictions, including Denmark, Israel and the European Union, have announced — or launched — vaccine passport programs that would offer immunized residents the ability to move more freely.

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed concerns on Friday that such an approach could lead to greater inequity for some Canadians, however.

"The idea of certificates of vaccination for domestic use does bring in questions of equity. There are questions of fairness and justice. There could be discrimination," he said in French.

Ultimately, the decision will be left to provinces, said Health Minister Patti Hajdu who echoed Trudeau's concerns.

In B.C., Premier John Horgan said that while he's open to the requirement of a vaccine passport for international travellers, he has reservations about their use in local communities.

Horgan added that the province hasn't ruled out implementing a program that would provide proof of vaccination.

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Vaccine passport could become a 'barrier'

The issue of access is top of mind for palliative care physician and health justice activist Naheed Dosani who worries that such documentation could exclude people living on the margins from parts of society.

"The discourse is that these vaccine passports [will] allow people to gain access to certain indoor spaces, outdoor spaces, public spaces, even places where people might go shopping or people might get food," he said.

"If someone doesn't have a passport, what does that mean?"

Dosani says while creating a program to provide proof of immunization could be useful, it may in turn create barriers for Canadians without access to resources that would provide it, or make it useful. 

For people living in poverty without a place to call home, for example, he says it can be a challenge to find a safe space to store important documents.

"It is an issue that we've seen in the past where people who experience homelessness, don't always have their health card or ID," Dosani explained.

"I just start to wonder about how a passport, which could enable progress in society, could be a barrier for those who live on the margins."

A server takes customers' orders at a restaurant in Bromont, Que. on Monday, March 8, 2021. Customers are allowed to dine in as of Monday in restaurants outside of the greater Montreal area. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Possible return to 'normal'

While he supports the idea in principle, Montreal-based restaurant owner Paul Desbaillets says in order for vaccine passports to be fully equitable, it would need to clearly identify people with health exceptions.

"There are people that don't get vaccinated, so now what happens?" said Desbaillets, who is also a member of the Nouvelle Association des Bars du Québec. "This is the problem."

"It's too open, it's too loose. And what happens if you have an employee that does not get vaccines, does not get flu shots?"

Marinuzzi, whose Toronto restaurants are only serving takeout through windows, also questions how much value vaccine passports will ultimately provide. 

With restaurants in parts of Ontario open for indoor dining without proof of vaccine, including a location of his own in Picton, Ont., Marinuzzi argues that the documentation could prove ineffective by the time it becomes available.

But, for now, he sees it as one way back to some semblance of life before the pandemic.

"I think it'll help society, the economy ... and getting back to anything that is 'normal.'"


Written by Jason Vermes with files from Steve Howard.

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