BY SURJIT SINGH FLORA AND ALEX GREGORY
Proof, please. The province announced plans Wednesday afternoon for a “vaccine certificate” program that will require proof of COVID-19 immunization to access many indoor venues, including movie theatres, indoor dining and events, in a bid to cut down on rising case counts.
Noting the decision was something “I did not want to do,” Premier Doug Ford announced the certificate program, which will roll out on Sep. 22 and require visitors to many non-essential businesses to provide proof of medical vaccination or a medical exemption along with photo identification in order to access them, with plans for a QR code program and associated mobile app this fall.
The program represents an about-face for Ford, who spoke out against such a program over the past week amid calls from municipalities to implement a certificate program. “We either do this or we risk shutting down,” said Ford in his first in-person news conference in over a month, noting that the new program will apply to “higher-risk indoor public settings” where public masking isn’t an option, such as community centres, sporting events, concerts, nightclubs and bars, among other venues.
Customers attending such venues will need to produce documentation of their full immunization (two doses plus 14 days after the second dose), in printed or electronic form, along with a photo ID card, or a medical exemption, to access such non-essential services. Despite the move, the program won’t apply to outdoor settings like patios and some indoor venues like hair salons, while employees at non-essential businesses won’t require vaccination under the new certification.
In recent days, Ford spoke out against the implementation of a certification program, noting that it could create a “split society” if instituted, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke out against the move last week during a campaign stop in Streetsville as he announced a pledge to provide $1 billion in funding to provinces to implement certification systems.
Ontario also announced that a revised program, set to be ready around Oct. 22, will utilize QR codes and a mobile app to check for proof of vaccination, though critics of the program say it is not only inconsistent, but doesn’t do enough to protect struggling business sectors.
“Vaccine certificates aren’t coming soon enough for the small businesses that have been struggling without provincial guidance to keep their customers and staff safe,” said NDP leader Andrea Horwath on Wednesday. “Ford is still leaving far too many businesses on their own to make tough decisions. (He) seems to be more interested in not offending antivaxxers than in protecting Ontarians.”
The move to adopt a province-wide vaccination certificate program also followed announcements from local municipalities in recent days, including Mississauga, to enforce a mandatory vaccination program for employees.
The City of Brampton also said Wednesday that it would institute a vaccination policy for employees, though details weren’t finalized as of press time. Medical experts have also pushed for a certification program, noting that the province, which has cracked caseloads of 700-plus confirmed cases daily over the past week, will need to see higher adoption of the vaccine if it wants to avoid a fourth lockdown.
“We are already seeing a rise in the number of cases of COVD-19 as we head into the fall,” said the province’s chief medical officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, referring to conversations with the province’s “science table” on best practices.
“The introduction of a vaccine certificate is an important step to give people the tools to limit further spread of the virus so that we can ensure the safety of all Ontarians while keeping the province open and operational.” As of Wednesday, just over 75 per cent of individuals in Ontario had received both doses of the vaccine, though Moore stated that adoption rates would need to get to 85 per cent to avoid a fourth lockdown in the fall.
The province further confirmed Wednesday that the certification program would only be enforced with warnings and educational programs, though police agencies have indicated that they have not had time to review the new guidelines. “Police will not be expected to conduct routine compliance checks of enhanced vaccination receipts,” said a representative from the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) Wednesday afternoon in a statement, noting that it would continue to protect the “safety of Ontarians.”
Others, including business owners and provincial organizations representing business interests, expressed concern regarding the inconsistency of some policies within the program. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the plan provides some clarity, but more is needed.
“How will enforcement work?” the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) said in a statement. “Will training be provided for businesses that have to check vaccine credentials? How are businesses supposed to recognize cut-off province and cut-off country vaccinations? Is there iron clad protection for businesses against potential human rights challenges and costly lawsuits?” Look for additional coverage of this story on Friday morning.