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People wait in line inside of the Walrus Pub & Beer Hall in Toronto on Oct. 1, 2021.Rachel Verbin/The Canadian Press

Inspectors have visited thousands of businesses in Ontario to enforce vaccine passport rules and have issued fines or charges in only a few dozen cases, according to a Globe and Mail analysis.

Some types of businesses with indoor gatherings, such as restaurants and gyms, have been required since Sept. 22 to ensure customers are fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. The measure was part of Ontario’s reopening plan, which was announced as the province came through a third wave of the virus.

The Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, which leads provincial enforcement, said as of Nov. 8 its officials had conducted a total of 5,637 visits to businesses and issued 61 tickets under the Reopening Ontario Act. A provincial spokesperson said some of those tickets were related to failure to screen for vaccination, but they also involved other safety measures, such as failure to mask.

“Data from our most recent visits continues to show the vast majority of businesses are following the rules,” ministry spokesperson Kalem McSween said.

Some public-health advocates, however, said the data could also indicate that enforcement has been lenient because the number of fines is such a small percentage of the complaints that have been registered.

While provincial inspectors have authority everywhere, enforcement varies among cities: In some places, municipal authorities and police work together; in others they work separately; and in some jurisdictions only municipal staff conduct inspections.

The Globe and Mail canvassed provincial agencies, the 10 largest municipalities in Ontario and, where necessary, local police forces to check on enforcement of vaccine passport rules. Across regions a common pattern emerged: Many inspections had been carried out, some at the initiative of inspectors and some triggered by customer complaints, but few businesses have so far been punished for non-compliance.

The City of Toronto, where enforcement is up to municipal officials, said it had received 1,075 complaints from residents related to proof of vaccination requirements. The city said it had conducted 1,264 inspections, sent out five warning letters and issued no charges.

In London, where municipal, public-health and police officers work together, 1,789 businesses had been inspected, but no charges have been issued for failure to require proof of vaccination. (The city noted, however, that 75 charges had been issued for other compliance issues.)

The City of Brampton said it had received just 23 complaints, of which three were for businesses that were not required to screen customers for their vaccination status, and one call was related to a customer who refused to show vaccine proof at a business. The city said two warnings were issued in the other cases, and no tickets.

Other municipalities that had issued two or fewer tickets included Mississauga, Markham, Vaughan and Kitchener.

The cities of Ottawa and Hamilton had issued the most tickets – 14 (including one court summons) and 17, respectively – and were the only municipalities to publicly release the names of restaurants that had failed to verify vaccination status. Neither city was able to provide the total number of inspections conducted.

Representatives of the business community said the figures indicated widespread compliance with the vaccine passport rules.

“This data shows that restaurants are taking the precautions necessary to combat the virus, as they have done since the start of the pandemic,” said James Rilett, vice-president of Central Canada for Restaurants Canada.

Ryan Mallough, senior director of Ontario provincial affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the provincial government boosted business compliance by clearly communicating rules ahead of time and allowing businesses a grace period to adopt them. However, he said businesses have had to take on new costs associated with implementing the rules and have seen revenue decline as some customers stay home.

“We continue to urge the Ontario government to provide grant funding to offset these costs,” Mr. Mallough said.

The concerns of public-health advocates are heightened because case counts have risen in recent days and cold weather is forcing more activities indoors. The Ontario government said last week it was postponing further reopening for businesses with high-risk activities, such as nightclubs and wedding receptions with dancing.

Andrew Morris, an infectious-disease physician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and University Health Network and a member of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said he was concerned by the enforcement numbers.

Dr. Morris said the purpose of the vaccine passport system is to keep people safe by separating them from unvaccinated people who are potentially much more infectious.

“If people know that they won’t get their immunization status checked, they will go to where they are not meant to,” Dr. Morris said. “It increases the risk to everyone, and it snowballs, because such places will establish a reputation.”

Businesses that do not follow the rules can face a $1,000 fine or, if charged and convicted under provincial law, penalties of up to $10-million.

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario has also suspended and moved to revoke liquor licences of two bars, one in Kingston and another in Belleville, in relation to refusing to check vaccine status.

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