Proof of COVID-19 vaccines to be mandatory in Waterloo Region businesses

Non-essential businesses in Waterloo Region and across Ontario will start requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccines later this month.

The vaccine certification program will come into effect on Sept. 22.

Proof of two vaccine doses will be required at casinos, bingo halls, concert venues, theatres, cinemas, sporting facilities and events, banquet halls, convention centres, and to eat at indoor food and drink establishments. Proof isn't required at retail shopping, salons, banks, places of worship, essential services, workplaces or patios and other outdoor spaces.

Premier Doug Ford unveiled the program at a press conference on Wednesday.

"We find ourselves facing a fourth wave of COVID-19 as we enter the fall months and people return indoors," he said. "We can't wait any longer, we must take immediate action."

He said a passport system will help protect hospitals and avoid lockdowns.

"We've landed on a vaccine certificate policy that is based on evidence and best advice," Ford said.

Enforcement will be led by bylaw officers.

"Ontarians will need to provide proof of being fully vaccinated in order to access a number of businesses and other settings," Health Minister Christine Elliott said at the press conference.

Elliott said COVID-19 and the Delta variant will remain a threat until higher vaccination rates are achieved.

"We know vaccines provide the best protection against COVID-19 and the Delta variant," she said.

"We need to be proactive to avoid reactive closings," Ontario's chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore said at the briefing. "Proof of vaccination is one such practice that is increasingly being adopted in other jurisdictions to help limit the spread of the virus."

Dr. Moore said the months ahead will be "challenging" as the fourth wave continues.

While the current passport system does not apply to outdoor businesses and only select, non-essential indoor settings, Dr. Moore hinted the list of businesses could be expanded as needed.

Plans for vaccine passports have already rolled out in British Columbia, Quebec and Manitoba.

OFFICIALS, BUSINESSES WELCOME VACCINE PASSPORTS

Regional Chair Karen Redman said she’s heard from local residents and businesses that this is something the community wants.

“I think a provincial approach is the right one so there’s more uniformity,” said Regional Chair Karen Redman. “It doesn’t make anybody bulletproof. So we still have to have the vaccine and we still have to practice the public health procedures."

“A vaccine passport or proof of vaccination helps protect all of us and keep our economy moving forward. As so many small businesses have struggled, I am very pleased to see this province wide. The best thing we can all do to curb a fourth wave and ensure a better fall and winter ahead is get vaccinated. As we will be heading indoors and sharing close contact with more and more people, proof of vaccination will be pivotal,” said Kathryn McGarry, Mayor of Cambridge, in an e-mail statement.

The local business community in Waterloo Region also welcomed the news.

“While many small business owners believe in the freedom of individuals to choose whether or not to get vaccinated, they also have the wellbeing of their staff, customers and financial bottom line to consider. They simply cannot withstand another lockdown. They need to be open and want to stay open and, as such, many are in support of a vaccine passport program – like the one that was announced by the provincial government today,” said Tracy Van Kalsbeek, the Executive Director at The Uptown Waterloo BIA in an e-mail statement to CTV News.

Local businesses admitted the past year and a half hasn’t been eas dealing with lockdowns and pandemic restrictions.

“You see your revenue cut by one-third or two-thirds or whatever it was, depending on which closure it was,” said Tim Borys, co-owner of Lancaster Smokehouse in Kitchener. “I am in favour of pretty much anything that’s going to prevent us from having to close again."

Borys said they have already had meetings with staff about the new rules. Staff agreed having senior staff at the host stand for the first few weeks would help.

“Just to make sure that everything goes smoothly. It’s going to be new for customers and it’s going to be new for us,” said Bory.

Vaccine passports will also be in effect at movie theatres.

“The box office will scan it in and they will scan their tickets. And it will be super easy for us from our side,” said Apollo Cinema General Manager Cara Watson. “I think it’s a really good step for Ontario."

CONCERNS FROM THE CFIB

Ryan Mallough, senior director of provincial affairs with the Ontario branch of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the new system leaves a lot of unanswered questions, including how businesses should implement and enforce the new system.

“How is it actually going to work? Who is going to be responsible for it? Will there be any financial or educational support for businesses as they deal with this on the ground?” Mallough said. “We want to make sure the government takes the next three weeks to talk about the how.”

Mallough said he’s worried business owners will be left with the burden of enforcing proof of vaccines without appropriate training.

“It is a passionate issue and we are very concerned about what, in a lot of cases, relatively young employees having to deal with this on the front line,” he said.

With files from CTV Toronto.