Hamilton restaurants celebrate the end of Ontario’s proof-of-vaccination system

As of March 1, restaurants in Ontario are no longer required to ask customers for proof-of-vaccination. Zou Zheng/Xinhua via ZUMA Press

Restaurant operators in Hamilton are more than ready for the end of Ontario’s proof-of-vaccination system.

The vaccine passport lifted on March 1, along with capacity limits, as the province reopened further following stable COVID-19 case counts and high vaccination rates.

When the proof-of-vaccination system was introduced in September of last year, Premier Doug Ford said it would only be in place as a temporary measure.

Erika Puckering, co-owner of Electric Diner in Hess Village, said the provincial policy caused additional stress that everyone is looking forward to seeing gone.

“Every time there’s a new policy from the government, it is the small businesses that end up having to communicate this to customers,” she said. “And you get some backlash and some people who get standoffish and then take it out on our staff.”

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Not only did her staff have to enforce it, but Puckering said the process of actually checking vaccination status took up time in a way that snowballed and caused other problems.

Puckering described the complicated process of waiting for people to produce their QR codes, and said it can cause a chain reaction that slows down service.  “That just bumps the next one and the next one and the next one.”

There was also a noticeable dip in sales whenever a new restriction came into effect, Puckering added, as people tried to figure out what was allowed and what was required to dine out.

“Then people start to understand what they have to do, and it starts to pick that back up, but … I don’t think it brought more people in that were vaccinated,” she said.

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“We just lost more people when we had to enforce things.”

Michael Cipollo, executive chef and CEO of Local Restaurants Group — which is behind Hamilton restaurants like HAMBRGR, Matty’s Hot Chicken, and Undefined — is also happy to see the vaccine passport go for many of the same reasons.

“A majority of our guests weren’t even aware of the QR code requirement,” he said.

“We spent a lot of time at our front doors to our restaurants, teaching our guests how to log in to the government website to get their QR codes so they could come in for their dinner. And that just slows everything down and makes it even more challenging.”

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Not only was it time-consuming, but Cipollo said the system was riddled with technical issues that made it even more difficult for staff.

“The whole process is super clunky and we just can’t wait for it to be done so that we can start greeting our guests as our guests and not as some form of gatekeeper to get them in and out of the restaurant.”

The vaccination verification system is also being lifted in settings like gyms and municipally run facilities like recreation centres and arenas.

Jason Thorne, Hamilton’s director of emergency operations, said it is still something that businesses can use if they would prefer, but the city is going ahead and getting rid of it.

“If business owners or people who run event centres, those sorts of things, do want to still require that, they can continue to do so,” he said during an interview on Global News Radio’s Hamilton Today. “It’s the mandatory requirement that is lifted as of (Tuesday).”

He stressed that the mask mandate does remain in place for the time being.

The premier has indicated the provincial mask mandate will be the next thing that’s up for review, but it’s unclear when that will happen.

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Cipollo said his restaurants had been getting calls from customers who were confused and thought the mask mandate was one of the measures being lifted as of Tuesday.

He said he’ll be ready for that step when it happens, but also isn’t ruling out the possibility of further restrictions at some point down the road.

“I really hope this is the last one because, you know, it’s a war of attrition at this point. Trying to get on with it and learning to live with it is going to be the way we have to go, but we’ll adapt if we have to.”

Puckering also said she’s prepared to do whatever needs to be done and follow whatever rules or guidelines come down. Yet she said she hopes this is the beginning of the end of public health restrictions — especially as she looks at opening up a second location in Hamilton.

“I’m just going to continue our business, continue our five-year, 10-year plan. We want to expand and just kind of continue on that path without reservation because the new restriction might be completely different from now. You know, there might be some other triple mask or some other booster passport or whatever that I can’t plan for.”

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“So we’ll just roll with the punches. If it comes, it comes and we’ll figure it out when that happens. And I hope it doesn’t.”

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