Ontarians will have to show proof they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before entering indoor businesses such as restaurants, gyms, nightclubs, theatres and banquet and meeting halls.
Premier Doug Ford unveiled the plan on Wednesday, saying the new rules were needed to blunt the effects of the pandemic’s continuing fourth wave. Hours later, Ontario’s independent COVID-19 Science Advisory Table published new modelling that warned the more transmissible Delta variant could see cases skyrocket, especially among the unvaccinated, affecting all age groups and “with the potential to exceed ICU capacity” as school and other activities resume this fall.
Ontario’s new proof-of-vaccination rules come into effect Sept. 22, at first using existing printed or e-mailed vaccine receipts issued by the government and requiring patrons to show photo ID. A smartphone app, which will allow people to display their verified vaccination status with a scannable QR code, is being developed and is expected to launch Oct. 22. Quebec launched a similar app on Wednesday.
Mr. Ford announced the plan at his first news conference in more than a month, introducing rules that echo those being imposed in Manitoba, British Columbia and Quebec after weeks of calls from business groups, medical experts, mayors and opposition politicians for Ontario to follow suit.
The Progressive Conservative Premier – who in July said he opposed vaccine passports and warned they would create a “split society” – said talks with his Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, and growing concern about the potential impact of the fourth wave of COVID-19 prompted him to change his mind.
Mr. Ford’s critics have accused him of dragging his feet. The government had vaccine-passport plans involving the use of QR codes drawn up last December, but never acted on them. The Premier on Wednesday acknowledged he was reluctant, calling the passports a “serious step.”
But he also waded into the federal election, pointing a finger at federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, whom Mr. Ford said had called an “unnecessary election” instead of acting on requests from him and other premiers for a national vaccine passport. Mr. Ford said a national system would be better than a province-by-province “patchwork.”
“Justin Trudeau has told us that they will not be rolling out a national vaccine passport while their election is ongoing,” Mr. Ford said. “We can’t wait any longer.”
That prompted a rebuke from Liberal candidate Bill Blair, who called Mr. Ford’s comments untrue. Mr. Blair said Mr. Ford, along with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, had opposed domestic vaccine passports and that Mr. Ford had asked Ottawa to limit itself to a system for international travel.
“From the very beginning, Premier Ford has made a series of errors in judgment in managing the pandemic, and the people of Ontario have had to pay the price,” Mr. Blair said.
Ontario officials have been working with their federal counterparts on co-ordinating vaccine certificate plans for what could eventually be a document for international travel. Any proof-of-vaccination program requires access to provincial databases that actually track who has been vaccinated.
The science table’s new modelling presents a range of projections. Its upper-range projection, which assumes increased contacts between people and a 25-per-cent boost in transmission, Ontario could see more than 9,000 new cases a day in October, with intensive care units more jammed than in the third wave. A middle-range scenario predicts 4,000 cases a day, while a low-range scenario, which assumes a 25-per-cent decrease in transmission, would see new cases peak below 1,000 and decrease from there.
The table warns that to avoid another lockdown, vaccination rates must “accelerate substantially” beyond 85 per cent of eligible Ontarians – 76 per cent are fully vaccinated now – with pandemic rules on masking, physical distancing, working from home and proof-of-vaccination certificates in place.
The Globe and Mail
Ontario’s new rules will not apply to outdoor-restaurant patios, although outdoor areas of nightclubs are covered as they are considered higher-risk. Retail stores, salons, barbershops and places of worship are also not included. Unvaccinated people will not be allowed to submit a negative COVID-19 test instead of a vaccination certificate, but the system will allow for medical exemptions for those who are allergic to the vaccine or for whom it poses a health risk. Children under 12, who cannot receive the vaccine, are also exempt. Youth sports are also exempt, but some leagues have brought in their own vaccine policies.
The plan only considers people fully vaccinated if it has been two weeks since their second shot. Those who fail to follow the rules could face hundreds of dollars in fines. A special exception that expires Oct. 12 has been made for preplanned weddings and funerals, allowing attendees to show a negative COVID-19 test instead. Other details are still being worked out.
Opposition leaders criticized the plan as too little, too late. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government was too concerned with “not offending anti-vaxxers” while Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, who called for a vaccine passport system more than a month ago, said Mr. Ford “only does the right thing when he is dragged there kicking and screaming.” He said the new modelling projections show Mr. Ford should have acted sooner.
Rocco Rossi, president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, praised the move but said the new rules apply only to customers, not to staff, meaning it is up to businesses themselves to demand that employees are vaccinated. He warned this could create a “patchwork of inconsistent policies.”
In Toronto, a spokesman for musical-theatre company Mirvish Productions said his organization welcomes the passport. John Karastamatis said the entertainment company had already decided to make vaccines mandatory for all spectators and employees at their four theatres across the city, once they resume their programming in December.
“There was no other way forward,” he said. “How else do you mitigate the risk of bringing a bunch of strangers together?”
With a report from Alex Cyr
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.