Ontario reveals vaccine passport system for restaurants, gyms and theatres. Here's what you need to know

Proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be required to access non-essential businesses in Ontario, including gyms, indoor restaurants, movie theatres and concert halls, under the province's new vaccine certification program starting Sept. 22.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford made the announcement at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, saying the certificate is necessary to keep non-essential businesses and facilities open as the Delta variant continues to fuel a fourth COVID-19 wave.

"After in-depth discussions with our medical experts, we've landed on a vaccine certificate policy that is based on evidence and the best advice," Ford told reporters.

"We have two options here. We either do this or we risk shutting down the economy, which would even be worse, having our hospital capacity maxed out and at the brink, having our kids stay at home, our college and university kids going back online. That is what we are trying to avoid.”

Those eligible for a vaccine certificate must have both doses of an approved COVID-19 vaccine, which will allow them to visit casinos, concert venues, theatres, cinemas, sporting facilities and events, banquet halls, bingo halls ,convention centres, nightclubs and to eat at indoor food and drink establishments.

Officials said that a certificate is not necessary for retail shopping, salons and barbershops, banks, places of worship, essential services, workplaces or patios and other outdoor spaces.

The province said the decision to exempt some non-essential businesses such as salons and barbershops from the vaccine certificate rule is because data shows that the transmission risk is not as high in those settings due to strong infection control practices.

"The venues that we have chosen are responsive to the risk that we have found in Ontario," Ontario’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said at the news conference on Wednesday. "If the risk increases in other venues, we can add and implement additional measures to protect Ontarians." 

The new rules will also not apply to children under the age of 12 and people with medical exemptions.

WHERE TO GET A VACCINE CERTIFICATE

As the government works to develop a digital vaccine certificate for October, the province says people will meanwhile use their vaccine receipts available in PDF format on the provincial portal. People with red-and-white health cards can call the vaccine booking line to get a copy of their receipt.

At the entrance of applicable businesses, residents will need to present the receipt alongside government-issued photo identification, and, for now, it will be visually verified by the venues and organizations.

For the official vaccine certificate, the province is working to establish personalized QR codes for vaccinated individuals, which is expected to be ready for Oct. 22. People can either print or store the QR code on their phone. It must be used alongside government-issued photo ID.

The government is also developing an app for businesses that will scan and verify the contents of the QR code, which will also be ready in October. The app will show businesses a checkmark or an ‘X’ to confirm vaccination status, officials say. 

In the coming weeks, the province said it’s working to establish a process to prove vaccination status for people with no e-mail, health card or ID, as well as support the implementation of vaccine certificates for Indigenous communities.

The province warned that proof of a negative COVID-19 test or a recent infection will not replace the vaccine certificates. There will be a limited time exception for funerals and weddings between Sept. 22 and Oct. 12. A negative test taken within 48 hours will enable a person to enter if not fully vaccinated.

'SOMETHING I DID NOT WANT TO DO'

Over the past several days, officials met multiple times to discuss the details around Ontario’s vaccine certification system.

Vaccine passports, or plans to create them, have already been rolled out in multiple other Canadian provinces, including British Columbia, Quebec, and Manitoba.

"My friends, it's no secret. This is something that I did not want to do. This is a serious step that we're not taking lightly," Ford told reporters on Wednesday.

"This is a temporary tool that we won't use any longer than we have to but ... I know that this is what we have to do right now in the face of the fourth wave because these certificates are necessary to keep our hospitals safe and to avoid another lockdown."

The premier said bylaw officers would be responsible for enforcing the new certificate policy. For individuals and businesses who do not comply with the program, fines will be issued under the Reopening Ontario Act.

CERTIFICATE AIMS TO INCREASE VACCINATIONS

Ford said the certificates aim to reduce overall transmission in the community and encourage vaccine uptake in order to reach herd immunity with the more transmissible Delta variant.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist in Toronto, told CP24 on Wednesday that Ontario would likely see an increase in vaccinations following the announcement. Currently, about 83 per cent of residents 12 and older in Ontario have at least one dose of the vaccine, and about 76 per cent are fully vaccinated.

"We will likely see a pretty reasonable jump in people booking their vaccines. We saw that in France, we saw that in Quebec, we saw that in B.C. I think we will probably see the same thing in Ontario," he said.

"People who might have been sitting on the fence are going to say, 'Wow, if I want to participate in non-essential activities, go to non-essential businesses, like restaurants, like bars, like concerts or whatever, I need a vaccine, I'm going to go get one.'"

He added that while vaccine certificates and passports are important, they are not the overall "solution to the pandemic."

"This helps create a safer indoor space," he said. "This is not the only thing that needs to be done. This is one major policy decision that can be taken to keep places open."