When Alberta’s vaccine passport system launched, Heather Pedhirney, operations manager for Calgary’s Deane House and River Café, said dealing with diners was the easy part at the two restaurants. Checking visitors’ documents for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test required extra staffing at entrances, but overall Ms. Pedhirney said it’s been smooth sailing during lunch and dinner service.
Most diners on the first day of the vaccine passport system showed up with identification and vaccination records in hand, she said, handing over documents like they were moving through security clearance at an airport.
However, it’s the other events the company takes on, such as weddings and other large gatherings, that have required more digging and understanding in terms of what’s allowed and what’s required, under the provincial rules and under a more strict bylaw passed by Calgary’s city council.
“While we now know the exact restrictions we need to follow as a restaurant, some things weren’t fully outlined,” Ms. Pedhirney said. “What about a wedding? What about for a large party? We’re doing our best to educate our staff, update manuals and what our best practices should be.”
Businesses across the province are wrestling with those sorts of questions and logistical issues a week after Alberta launched a vaccine passport system that has been criticized for being overly complicated while relying on documents that are relatively easy to fake.
Premier Jason Kenney, who had repeatedly ruled out any kind of vaccine passport system, relented earlier this month in the face of skyrocketing infections that have filled up intensive-care units and are now overwhelming the health care system.
The Alberta government offered businesses a choice: implement a Restricted Exemption Program (REP), a system to verify that customers are either vaccinated or tested negative in the past 72 hours, or accept tougher restrictions, which for restaurants include a ban on indoor dining and capacity limits on patios.
In Calgary, city council approved a bylaw that will make the vaccine passport system mandatory with no opting out.
Evan Woolley, a city councillor whose ward includes the Beltline neighbourhood and many of the city’s most prominent restaurants, said the new bylaw was designed to make things simpler.
“Everything has been so disorganized, and now we’re way behind the ball,” he said. “[The provincial government] has mostly left businesses to fend for themselves through all of this, we still don’t have a QR-code app. ... The City of Calgary is now leaning in to support and fill some of the gaps that we’ve seen from the province in terms of implementation.”
The province is developing an electronic system that uses QR codes, which is expected in early October, to verify vaccine status, but right now customers can use printouts from a government website or the records they received when they got their shots.
In addition to the bylaw, Mr. Woolley said that the City of Calgary is about to release details on a $5-million grant program that will provide subsidies to qualifying businesses that have taken on extra staff hours and other costs to ensure the vaccine proof and negative-test rules are properly executed.
“It’s meant to assist businesses in creating infrastructure for properly enforcing REP. I think the real challenge will be the cost of labour – the ongoing value of having someone always stationed at the front door,” he explained.
Longstanding pizzeria Without Papers faced criticism last week after posting on social media that the restaurant intended to flout the the bylaw, arguing in a series of posts on Instagram that the business was instead respecting people’s right to choose for themselves.
Mr. Woolley said the city will be enforcing the bylaw.
“I think it’s ridiculous for a business to take that position and I think they’ll see less customers coming through the door [because of it],” Mr. Woolley said. “If people are reporting that they’re not following the mandate, our bylaw officers and our enforcement teams will go by and we will ticket them.”
The Ship and Anchor has regularly been touted as an exemplar in terms of health and safety standards throughout the pandemic. The phrase “What would the Ship do?” has become common within Calgary’s food community, especially when new restrictions were brought in or old ones dissolved.
“Letting customers know what to expect from us has always been front of mind,” said Samantha Baldwin, the pub’s general manager. “It’s really important that we get our message out there so people are not arriving here confused. If you set a precedent of being transparent and communicative, then people look for that communication before coming to our space.”
She said many local restaurateurs reached out to her over the past 18 months for guidance. It’s not a position they expected to be in, but said she was proud that the restaurant’s transparency and proactive approach to all things pandemic-related was recognized.
Even before last week’s AHS restrictions update, the Ship had taken the initiative to require proof of vaccination for certain events within its space.
“I think many of us in the industry had a lot of pushback from people during the first, second and third waves, even though we didn’t have a choice in the implementation,” Ms. Baldwin said. “This time around, there’s been nothing but co-operation from patrons, which has been very heartwarming.”
After the REP announcement last week, the Ship’s management team mandated that all employees be fully vaccinated to ensure the safety for their work force as well as patrons. Nearly all of their 80-plus staff have complied.
So, does Ms. Baldwin think we’re finally reaching the light at the end of the tunnel?
“The new protocols have already increased the number of vaccinated people in Alberta, so one can only assume that things will look a lot better in the coming weeks,” she said. “This is the closest to normal that we can get at this time and if REP results in creating a safe space for everyone to be able to gather over the holidays, then I think we will finally be in a good place.”
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