The vaccine certificate program is the best case scenario for struggling businesses that need to avoid further lockdowns amid the pandemic, Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce president Eduardo Lafforgue says.
“We want to avoid another lockdown, it would be absolutely catastrophic. That’s why we have been so supportive (of the vaccine certificate),” Lafforgue said.
He emphasized the vaccine certificate is not a political whim imposed by the Ontario government.
“This is under the recommendation of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, which is very important because we are really following the science,” he said.
“We are in our fourth wave, right now. Vaccination is the single greatest risk-mitigation tool against the resurgence of the variants.”
Kelly Turner, owner of the Olde Angel Inn, welcomes the vaccine certificate program.
“It’s a good thing. It keeps everybody safe, keeps the staff safe and keeps the patrons safe and allows us to operate,” Turner said in an interview Wednesday.
Turner knew there would be some people unhappy with the restrictions but said it’s a minority of potential customers.
“Eighty per cent of the people are going to be happy and support it and are for it,” she said.
She said the certificate would be more beneficial than detrimental to business.
“If we want to avoid another lockdown, we need to do this. We need to protect patrons and the staff and everybody out there so we can move forward.”
Staff at the Angel Inn are all in favour, she said.
“Everybody’s on board and knows what we have to do. We’re ready for it.”
But other business owners in town worry further restrictions on their customers is bad news as they just start recovering from previous lockdowns.
“I think it’s going to create a division amongst people in terms of going to a business and making use of their services,” Niagara Fit owner Robb Chrzaszcz said in an interview Wednesday.
Starting Sept. 22, people will need to prove that they are fully vaccinated to access indoor dining, bars, clubs, gyms and fitness centres, theatres and event spaces among other places. Fully vaccinated generally means having received two COVID-19 shots over 14 days prior.
A certificate will not be needed to dine on a patio, use a bathroom or get take-out from an establishment. Retail spaces are also exempt from enforcing the certificate.
On Tuesday, the province announced that medical exemptions were only eligible for people who have an allergy to a component of the vaccine as proven by an allergist and for people who suffer from inflammation of the heart.
It also announced that fines for non-compliant individuals and businesses would be roughly $750 to $1,000.
Chrzaszcz has worked at Niagara Fit for a year and became the new owner at the beginning of September.
“People who are unvaccinated are going to get churned out right away. That’s going to impact (everyone’s) business.”
He said most of his customers and the people he has spoken with are supportive of the certificate but he worries about the people who will now be refused service at many establishments.
Silks Country Kitchen owner Joel Dempsey had similar concerns.
Dempsey said he was “undecided” about the vaccine certificate, but had real worries it would hurt his restaurant’s finances.
“I’ve already had people say, ‘Well, I guess I won’t be seeing you after next week,’” he said.
After 18 months of lockdowns, a phased reopening and restrictions slowly abating, Dempsey didn’t understand why the province had to implement more restrictions on businesses.
He said the government started easing rules but is now “forcing us to drive people away.”
As a fitness and rehab centre owner, Chrzaszcz was particularly concerned that COVID-19 has taken away the focus away from other physical and mental health problems.
Lafforgue said there are only two choices for Ontario — to support vaccine certificates and get vaccinated or to face further lockdowns due to an overwhelmed health care system, “which will be absolutely catastrophic for the economy and for the tourism sector.”
He noted the history of vaccine certificates in international travel.
“Fifty years ago you would not have been able to get on a plane to Europe if you were not carrying your vaccine passport,” he said.
“My passport, in the back, had a full list of vaccines that I had to carry with me, otherwise I would not be able to get, well, anywhere.”
Lafforgue said all the Chambers of Commerce across the province are united in supporting the certificates.
A poll from NOTL showed that 64 per cent of residents support vaccine passports, he said.
But he did have some criticisms of the provincial government’s handling of the certificate system.
“We need more clarity. The government has yet to reveal those how-to instructions and this goes into effect on Sept. 22,” he said.
And while the printed vaccine certificates are easier to manage, Lafforgue was really worried about the rollout of the QR codes that the province has said will be introduced on Oct. 22.
The Chamber has received lots of inquiries about how the QR code will be implemented but Lafforgue is awaiting answers.
And it’s not just the lack of information for the public that has Lafforgue worried but the businesses and front-line workers who will need to track and enforce the new restrictions as well.
“It will be difficult for every business who needs a system to read the QR and to keep a record of that, which is very important,” he said.
Dempsey was also worried about the impact the certificate will have on his front-of-house staff.
Slowdowns as people arrive will make things difficult for Silks, he said, and he is frustrated with the province’s lack of details on how the certificate will be implemented.
Having staff screen people for COVID was already a hurdle and now checking identification and scanning codes will add to the difficulties, he said.
Lafforgue was sympathetic.
At some businesses, “People will come and say, ‘I’m not vaccinated and I bought my ticket and I want to get in.’ Well, sorry you can’t. That will be difficult,” he said.
The NOTL Chamber will be posting a document on its website, niagaraonthelake.com, outlining how people can get their vaccine certificates ready for Sept. 22.
Lafforgue says people curious about the QR code will have to keep their eyes peeled for updates from the provincial government.