Calgary businesses and facilities that were previously weighing whether or not to opt-in to the provincial restrictions exemption program won’t have to make that decision under the new COVID-19 Vaccine Passport Bylaw passed by city council on Wednesday. Councillors voted 13-1 in favour of the bylaw with Ward 11 Coun. Jeromy Farkas the sole opponent.
And under the new municipal bylaw, city peace officers have enforcement authority previously not given to them under the public health order issued by the province.
The bylaw comes into effect on Thursday.
City officials and councillors said they heard from businesses across the city who received backlash when announcing they would participate in the REP. Some industry representatives spoke at an earlier meeting of the business advisory committee.
“They’re calling us saying, ‘My staff have been spit on, my staff have been threatened, my staff have been punched, my staff is tired and I need them to come to work because I have a business to run and family to feed,” Ward 6 Coun. Jeff Davison said. “And the folks around us that also work at these businesses have the same.”
City officials spent the weekend drawing up the bylaw to mirror the provincial order in its scope, but added the requirement for signage to be posted at businesses and will be repealed when the province rescinds its proof-of-vaccination program.
Like the provincial program, the city’s bylaw applies to non-essential businesses like restaurants, movie theatres, museums, and adult recreation. But it does not apply to health and wellness services, retail and shopping malls, libraries, schools or places of worship.
City rec centres will also fall under the new bylaw.
“There are some provinces that have implemented a similar restriction and there are some that have not,” Matt Zabloski told council. “What we have heard in the City of Calgary, though, is that a lot of rec facilities across the city have already decided to implement the mandatory vaccination requirement for those aged 12 to 17, and that this would be very much in line with a lot of the existing practice within the city so far.”
Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he’s heard from many soccer and hockey clubs that they are requiring their youth players to get vaccinated.
“I’m actually very happy to be removing that discretion and saying look, this applies to all activities other than school curriculum activities in rec centers for kids from 12 to 17,” the mayor said.
Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra said he had heard from concerned parents ahead of Wednesday’s meeting about requiring vaccination
“What I have said to every parent who has texted me or emailed me is: ‘Get your kid vaccinated,’” Carra said.
“If this is what will get them to get their kids vaccinated, that’s the point.”
Breaking the new bylaw can carry fines similar to ones in the city’s mask bylaw: $500 for failing to provide proof of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test or a medical exception letter. Not checking for those can also result in a $500 fine. Failing to display the city’s prescribed signage can land a $200 fine.
Nenshi said he received a message from a city business owner in all-caps over the passing of the vaccine passport bylaw.
“So I’m getting yelled at,” the mayor said. “I’m getting yelled at by a great Calgary entrepreneur who’s just trying to run his small business that has been closed for quite some time during the COVID crisis. All caps: ‘Thank you so much for making the bylaw today — many exclamation points. Been so horrible this past week. That you and the good councillors just made our lives 1,000,000 per cent easier. Truly from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.”
Council also approved a grant to help businesses implement the REP/bylaw requirements.
The bylaw will not apply to city hall or to polling stations at the upcoming municipal election.
Nenshi minced no words when asked about Farkas’ vote against the bylaw in light of that city councillor’s bid to become mayor in October.
“His performance over the last couple of meetings, in my mind, has not been focused on saving people’s lives,” Nenshi said during a citywide COVID-19 update. “It has vacillated wildly between trying to support the UCP, to cherry picking the science on some things and not other things, to dangerous conversation and inflammatory language taken straight from the anti-vaxxers’ playbook.”
Nenshi noted he has been in the mayor’s seat for all four states of local emergency in Calgary’s history that were declared during the 2013 floods and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would expect that anybody who aspires to lead should lead, particularly at a time of emergency.”
During the meeting, Farkas described the bylaw as “additional,” “contradictory and redundant.”
City lawyer Shawn Swinn said the bylaw does not duplicate the provincial program.
“No, there’s going to be no city passport,” Swinn said. “The proof of vaccination the bylaw contemplates is that which would be provided by the province itself.”
Other councillors — and candidates for mayor — took to social media to air their thoughts on Farkas’ vote.
“Coun. Jeromy Farkas was the only member of #yyccc to vote against the strengthening of a vaccination passport process in Calgary,” Ward 3 Coun. Jyoti Gondek wrote.
“My kid faces significant delays on health care because people like Farkas manipulate facts and refuse to accept the consequences of a lack of leadership,” Davison wrote. “He doesn’t care about my family, and you can guarantee he doesn’t care about yours.”
The mayor said he doesn’t oppose dissenting views on council.
“You’re welcome to vote against (the bylaw), but have a rationale for it beyond trying to save your political skin or your own ideology,” he said.
“Being mayor is about way more than that.”