'The next few weeks are going to be disastrous,' employment lawyer says of Ontario's vaccine certificate rollout

A Toronto-based employment lawyer says businesses in the province are in for a "disastrous" few weeks as they attempt to roll out the Ford government’s confusing new vaccine certificate program.

One week from today, non-essential businesses across Ontario, including restaurants, movie theatres, and gyms, will be required to ask patrons to show proof that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before entering the building.

On Tuesday, the province released some new details about how the program will work and provided an update on the app and QR code system it is designing for businesses in order to simplify the verification process.

But until the anticipated roll out of the app on Oct. 22, many questions remain about the patchwork, physical document-based system that will be in place for the next month.

“Operationally as things roll out, I'm still not entirely sure from an employment perspective that this is not putting too much of a burden on employees that are going to have to confirm whether or not someone is vaccinated,” employment lawyer Muneeza Sheikh told CP24 on Wednesday.

“The biggest challenge is what are the employees responsible for in these circumstances.”

Customers must print out or display a PDF copy of their vaccine receipt or medical exemption, leaving businesses with uncertainty about what documents are suitable to accept.

“What happens if there are foreign vaccine certificates coming in? How are we supposed to manage that? What about the exemption? How does that work,” Larry Isaacs, president of The Firkin Group of Pubs, asked Wednesday.

A small list of acceptable medical exemptions for vaccination have been identified but the province has not provided health-care practitioners with a standardized exemption form.

Sheikh said the province is putting employees in a position where they have to ask questions they are not qualified to ask.

“The couple of calls that I received since yesterday are more around well, ‘What do we do if someone comes to the door and says well I'm not vaccinated because I'm exempt.’ And then the question becomes what type of proof can you accept as an employer as to what would exempt them,” she said.

“There isn't some clear cut guidance from the province in terms of one uniform document for me to accept.”

Sheikh noted that businesses are worried about being fined for non-compliance but also about their legal responsibility to protect the health and safety of workers.

“Are the employees going to have to act as security at the door, which is not something they signed up for,” she said.

“The next few weeks are going to be disastrous.”

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the businesses he has spoken to are upset over the lack of detail in the Ford government’s plan.

“There is a lot of questions, confusion and concern about how they enforce the vaccine certificate, what type of staff training support is going to be available, and what type of legal protections are available for small businesses in terms of enforcing vaccine certificates,” he said.

“They are going to have the added expense and burden of enforcing vaccine certificates.”

Isaacs told CP24 on Wednesday that it is “extremely frustrating” for restaurant owners that so many questions remain unanswered by the province.

“The QR reader, why is it coming out at time that wasn't the same time as the passport?” he asked. “Who is paying for the QR reader? How does it work?”

He called the health minister’s suggestion that staff call 911 to settle disputes “nonsensical.”

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday that employees should call 911 at any point if they feel threatened by patrons who do not comply.

“We want them to call 911 as soon as possible to make sure that our police officers can be there to assist,” she said Tuesday afternoon.

She added that she does not anticipate that this will result in a spike in calls for service.

“Calling 911 is really unreasonable,” Isaacs said.

“How are you going to call 911 and have the police officers wasting time coming out to deal with this.”

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the province's minister of health is "completely out of touch."

"I don't know where the minister of health gets her rose-tinted glasses from but I can tell you that I'm quite concerned and I think businesspeople are quite concerned as well. What they are telling me is that they don't know how they are going to deal with this," Horwath said Wednesday.

"They haven't been given any tools. It is something that business owners are very, very worried about. So to have the minister of health simply say, 'Well I don't see any problem happening.' Was she not looking down the street from Queen's Park when we saw protesters in front of the hospitals?"

But not all business owners are anticipating pushback with the new policy.

The co-owner of Sushi2Go told CP24 on Wednesday that she feels her staff and customers will get used to the policy.

"I think it is necessary and it encourages a safer environment for the employees and for the customers," she said.

"So far we've been asking for names and phone numbers if they dine-in and people have been willing. Nobody has been confrontational so I'm feeling good about people's cooperation."