As Canada weighs the use of domestic COVID-19 vaccine passports, some business leaders and entrepreneurs are calling on Ottawa and the provincial governments to step in quickly with a system.
In addition to providing the technology to verify whether someone is vaccinated against COVID-19, policymakers must establish clear rules and requirements for businesses to follow, says Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
“Governments can’t leave businesses hanging out there like a pinata for people to shoot at,” Beatty said in an interview with Global News.
In some instances, businesses that have implemented vaccine-verification protocols on their own have been subjected to “harassment” and even “threats of violence,” Beatty says.
Toronto restauranteur and author Jen Agg shares that sentiment.
“Very simply put, vaccine passports take the onus off individuals and businesses to protect public health,” she told Global News via email. “Allowing a loud, misinformed minority to hold the rest of us hostage with their tantrums at our businesses (and airports and at political events) is an appalling abdication of leadership.”
As Canada’s heads into fall with rising COVID-19 cases despite one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, the debate is intensifying around the degree to which the country should use domestic vaccine passports as its next tool of choice in the ongoing fight against the virus.
On the campaign trail, Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau has promised $1 billion to help provinces create their own passports.
“A vaccine mandate from non-essential businesses is a good idea. It keeps people safe. It encourages everyone to do the right thing. It keeps our businesses open and it keeps our economy rebuilding,” Trudeau said, speaking in Mississauga, Ont., on Aug. 27.
Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole hasn’t said whether he would support similar federal funding for provincial vaccine passports.
“We will support and respect what the provinces decide to do. It is their decision,” O’Toole said on the same day, speaking from Corner Brook, Nfld.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, on the other hand, is calling for a federal passport that would be valid across jurisdictions within Canada.
“The federal government should just do it. I think it makes a lot of sense to have a federal document that we can use to be able to travel around our country,” Singh said, speaking from Thunder Bay, Ont., when asked about the Liberals’ commitment.
Quebec and B.C. have already decided to mandate COVID-19 immunization for access to some business establishments and public spaces and have rolled out their electronic proof-of-vaccination systems.
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Manitoba said on Monday it would require full immunization for activities like indoor and patio restaurant dining, sporting events and fitness centres starting on Sept. 3. The Ontario government under Premier Doug Ford is widely expected to announce its own version of a vaccine passport in the coming days.
In mid-August, Ottawa also announced vaccines would become mandatory for all federal public servants and some federally-regulated employees, as well as for travellers on commercial flights and interprovincial trains. The federal government is also working on a vaccine passport for international travel.
But as federal candidates and provincial governments weigh vaccine passports and mandates, some companies that have moved ahead with their own measures have become lightning rods in the polarized public discourse over vaccines.
In Toronto, Agg’s Bar Vendetta has become the target of weekly protests by a group of anti-vaccine protesters after she tweeted support for vaccine passports in Ontario in July.
“It’s not fun for our servers to be screamed at and called Nazis and for me either. They will chant my name, they will call me the queen bigot,” Agg previously told Global News, adding that her restaurant does not currently require proof of vaccination.
Among large corporations, RBC, TD, Scotiabank, BMO and CIBC are mandating that employees working from their offices must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 this fall. Air Canada also announced it is now requiring all airline employees and new hires to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Similarly, Porter Airlines has said it will be requiring all of its employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or present a negative test within three days of the start of their shift.
But businesses need guidance from the government on whether and how to ask for vaccine credentials, says Beatty.
“We all have the responsibility to ensure a safe workplace (for employees), and we want to ensure that our customers are safe as well. But it’s not clear today whether or not we have the ability to ask people about their vaccination status and to insist that people be fully vaccinated,” he says.
Companies, for example, need clear rules on religious and health exemptions from vaccine requirements and whether rapid screening can be used instead, he adds.
But lack of government initiative could also be bad for business if it results in a web of different standards that vary from company to company or from municipality to municipality, Beatty warns.
“Imagine running a business that operates in several different provinces across the country and having totally different standards,” he says.
Governments should not only fill the current regulatory vacuum around vaccine passports but ensure requirements are as consistent as possible from coast to coast, he adds.
Some economists are also calling on Canada to hurry up in restricting higher-risk activities for those who aren’t fully vaccinated.
Canada could see another wave of business restrictions in the fall if it doesn’t act quickly on vaccine passports, TD chief economist Beata Caranci said in a recent client presentation that was referenced by Trudeau.
“With this virus, there is no threading the needle. Early and decisive action is key,” Caranci said.
Vaccine passports could reduce the likelihood that Canada will have to resort to new business restrictions this fall as the Delta variant drives a new wave of COVID-19 cases, she added.
While Canada has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and was more cautious than other countries in lifting pandemic-related restrictions, it also has a much more limited spare capacity in its hospitals, Caranci noted.
“What’s considered low hospitalizations in Israel and the U.K. would actually equate to Canada’s peak levels in the prior waves,” she said.
Mandating vaccine credentials could also help avoid more shutdowns by driving vaccination rates up further, says Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada.
Both B.C. and Quebec have reported jumps in first vaccine doses after announcing their vaccine passports.
While demanding vaccination credentials will keep away customers who don’t want the vaccine, it may also attract business from those who feel more comfortable knowing everyone around them has received a double shot, Antunes adds.
“People, in fact, may feel safer to go to restaurants and other service-sector activities if they know that there’s certain restrictions.”