The Ontario government unveiled new details on Tuesday about its proof-of-vaccination rules for restaurants, gyms, theatres and sports venues that come into effect next week, but critics said the system includes too many loopholes and could be easy to defraud.
For example, the new system will require people who cannot receive the COVID-19 vaccine for medical reasons to produce a note from a doctor or a nurse practitioner. It will not at first provide any way for businesses to verify that the exemption is legitimate.
The government’s fully digital vaccine certificate system, which will include QR codes and a smartphone app that will allow businesses to scan and verify them, will not be available until a month after the new rules launch on Sept. 22.
Until then, it will be up to businesses to scrutinize the paper vaccine receipts the province has issued, as well as those provided by other countries where some people may have received vaccines that have not been approved by Health Canada.
The government also said Tuesday that paper vaccine receipts and doctor notes for medical exemptions would still be accepted even after its app is launched.
Health Minister Christine Elliott and Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore unveiled the new regulations underlying the plan on Tuesday, with a week to spare before its launch.
Police and bylaw officers will start with a “measured approach” on enforcement, the government says. (Individuals face up to $750 in fines, or $1,000 for corporations, for breaking the rules.) In the event of a confrontation with a recalcitrant or threatening customer, the government’s advice for business owners is to call police.
But Ms. Elliott said she did not expect a flood of 911 calls as vaccination opponents clash with waiters or bar staff over the new rules next week.
“People understand what the rules are. And we are expecting people to follow them,” Ms. Elliott said.
The province announced this month that it would require customers of indoor restaurants, gyms, theatres and other businesses that heath officials consider higher-risk for COVID-19 transmission to show proof of vaccination before entering. The plans, similar to systems already in effect in British Columbia and Quebec, were revealed after Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford reversed his opposition to the policy in the face of rising COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.
Ontario Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Tuesday the plans should have come months earlier. She said the new regulations were confusing and open to fraud. Ms. Horwath also said the system should cover “all non-essential businesses” including retail stores – even though B.C., Manitoba and Quebec also exempt retailers.
“The government has taken far too long to put something in place,” Ms. Horwath told reporters. “They’ve dragged their feet all the way along.”
On the potential for fraud, Ms. Elliott conceded some could try to use fake doctor notes. But she said that problem will diminish once legitimate medical exemptions are included in the database that produces the QR codes for the vaccine certificates.
However, the government says no one will be forced to use the digital system. Kaleed Rasheed, Ontario’s associate minister for digital government, said the government could issue separate medical exemption certificates “at some point” for people who decline to use the QR codes.
Dr. Moore said medical vaccine exemptions are limited, including either severe allergies or the heart conditions associated in rare cases with the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Doctors or nurses who abuse the process could face professional discipline, he said, and fraudsters who try to pass off fake notes as real could face fines.
He also defended the plan’s other exemptions, including allowing unvaccinated patio diners to head inside restaurants to use washrooms or to pay. He said these customers will be wearing masks and usually spending less than 15 minutes inside, which he said is considered lower risk.
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce welcomed the new guidance for businesses but warned the plans still leave questions unanswered. The organization has repeatedly raised the issue that the new rules only apply to customers, not staff, meaning people who must show a vaccine receipt to eat at a restaurant could be served by an unvaccinated waiter.
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