The Ontario government has announced it will be requiring COVID-19 vaccination certificates for several indoor public settings such as restaurants, gyms and nightclubs, marking a major reversal in policy for Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet.
“There’s no secret that I wasn’t in favour of this. (As) a matter of fact, I stood there a while back saying I wasn’t in favour of it,” Ford told reporters at Queen’s Park Wednesday afternoon.
“After sitting down with Dr. (Kieran) Moore (Ontario’s chief medical officer of health), after finding out that the federal government just three weeks ago – it was just three weeks ago – said they weren’t going to have a national passport. Instead, they decided to go with an unnecessary election.
“We’re going to move forward with this and we have some of the most cautious, cautious protocols in the entire country, in North America.”
Officials announced that as of Sept. 22, Ontario residents will need to show proof of full vaccination (having received two doses at least 14 days before entry) along with photo ID in order to access the following settings: Restaurants, bars, nightclubs, meeting and event spaces, gyms and fitness facilities (exception for youth recreational sports), sports events, casinos, gaming establishments, concerts, music festivals, theatres, cinemas, strip clubs, bathhouses, and racing venues.
As of Oct. 22, the Ontario government is scheduled to roll out a new QR code-based application for residents and business operators to use in order for scans. Officials said new certificates similar to the current PDF ones will be issued. The new documents will contain a unique QR code that when scanned will display the holder’s current vaccination status (yes or no) and the person’s name.
Although the enhanced certificate program covers various indoor settings, other ones with a high number of congregants such as churches or settings where there are extended stays such as hair salons were left out of the program.
When asked about a number of sectors that were left out of the vaccination certificate program, Moore said the decision was based on current data.
“The venues we have chosen are responsive to the risk we have found in Ontario. If the risk increases in other venues, we can add and implement additional measures to protect Ontarians,” he said.
People will not have the option of presenting a negative COVID-19 test or proof of a recent infection in order to get inside regulated establishments except for wedding or funeral receptions.
Children under 12 years old will be allowed to enter any of the settings where vaccine certificates are required since they are not eligible for vaccination.
Also, businesses that fall under the categories requiring the use of vaccine certificates won’t be required to enact mandatory vaccine policies for employees. Instead, officials encouraged those operators to put in place vaccine policies.
Officials said eventually it’s the hope that those with legitimate medical exemptions such as people who have allergies or had adverse reactions to the first dose will be able to have a document that can be scanned.
They also said they’re working toward expanding the technology offering to businesses not covered under the regulations should operators want to opt in. A spokesperson said details will likely be unveiled in the coming weeks.
They noted for people who don’t have email or ID, or for Indigenous communities where data might be stored outside of the provincial COVID-19 vaccination database, a separate policy was scheduled to be announced later in the month.
Government staff said if business operators who don’t comply with checking the vaccination status of patrons or customers who present fake documents or ones not belonging to them will be subject to fines if caught and convicted. They added the final regulations are still being developed, but the potential fine for residents could be a minimum of $750 and at least $1,000 for corporations.
For those who don’t have a smartphone or easy access to getting an updated receipt with a QR code, they can call the provincial vaccine information line at 1-888-999-6488.
For anyone who needs a PDF copy of their vaccination receipt, they can visit the Ontario government’s COVID-19 vaccination portal.
Ford previously and repeatedly said he did not want to make vaccines mandatory, citing human rights violations and that it would create a “split society.” Both he and cabinet ministers have punted the issue to the federal government.
There have been mounting calls by local medical officers across Ontario for a provincewide COVID-19 vaccine certificate system when it comes to providing proof of inoculation to employers, for events or to gain entrance inside non-essential businesses. Some even mused about considering the implementation of vaccine passports on a regional level.
Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau recently singled out Ford for not mandating vaccines in non-essential settings, and promised $1 billion from a re-elected Liberal government for provinces to implement vaccine passport systems.
The group of scientists advising Ontario on the pandemic have said vaccine certificates would allow high-risk settings to reopen with greater capacity, and would help reintroduce public health measures if needed.
After Wednesday afternoon’s announcement, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Ford failed to get ahead of the issue of vaccine passports and that it looked like a “pretty hastily slapped together plan.”
“His actions are far too late and they’re of a bare minimum standard,” she said, accusing Ford of “playing politics” with public health measures.
“We’re on our back foot when it comes to the vaccination certificate. We’re over a month behind British Columbia and Quebec and the fourth wave is upon us, and of course, kids are going back into schools literally in a couple of days’ time.”
When asked about the businesses and organizations omitted from the government’s plan, Horwath said there’s a concern it doesn’t address issues surrounding protests over vaccinations.
“The bottom line is folks have been begging for some kind of consistency or some kind of blanket policy that doesn’t single anybody out and we don’t have that today,” she said.
“I am deeply concerned about how long it will take Doug Ford to fully roll the vaccine certificates out. Throughout this pandemic, these unnecessary delays have put lives at risk and left us in an unending cycle of lockdowns and confusion,” he wrote, highlighting a previous push for mandatory frontline vaccinations.
Mike Schreiner, the leader of the Green Party of Ontario, welcomed news of a vaccine certificate program but called what was revealed on Wednesday a “bare minimum half-measure” that should have come months ago.
“The premier needs to step up, stop blaming the feds for his lacklustre response to the pandemic and speed up implementation of Ontario’s vaccine certificate,” he wrote.
“Ford’s delays means Ontario won’t have a digital QR code until Oct. 22, well over a month after the start of the school year.
“Today’s announcement raises questions about why Ford is excluding staff, salons and barbershops from Ontario’s certificate since we must do all we can to avoid another lockdown.”
— With files from The Canadian Press