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Jimmy Staveris, manager of Dunn's Famous restaurant, scans the COVID-19 QR code of a client in Montreal, on Sept. 1, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

When Ontario announced that its vaccine passport system would end March 1, Jan Campbell-Luxton sat down with his staff at the bakery he owns in St. Catharines to make a decision together. Would they continue to ask customers for proof of vaccination?

“I wasn’t going to do anything that made them feel uncomfortable,” Mr. Campbell-Luxton says. He told the staff it would be unfair for him to base the decision on finances alone. Given everything they had been through together for the past two years, it was up to the group and their feelings of safety.

They decided to keep asking, at least for the next few weeks.

It was an easy decision for the staff, but a hard one to swallow for many people online, where Mr. Campbell-Luxton has been called a Nazi, a communist and a racist for the move.

Ontario lifts most COVID-19 restrictions, mask mandates continue

With vaccine passport requirements either already lifted or about to be done away with in most of the country in the coming weeks, businesses and organizations will have to decide for themselves whether to continue asking for proof of vaccination. The Toronto Zoo and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa are two of the larger organizations that have said they will, and countless other small businesses are wrestling with the issue. Any business that keeps passport requirements in place risks facing hateful comments online and accusations of denying people freedom.

When Alberta announced last month that its restrictions exemption program, the province’s version of a vaccine passport, would be lifted as of Feb. 9, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce was quick to criticize the move, saying it failed to take into account consumer confidence in the province’s economic recovery and would reduce revenues for businesses because too many people worried about exposure would stay home.

“Businesses aren’t new to weighing risks, and this is another risk they’re going to have to evaluate,” says Deborah Yedlin, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce. “Having said that, I’m getting the sense that businesses really want to make sure their employees feel comfortable, and they can’t risk their employees getting sick because we already know there is a challenge when it comes to labour.”

The fear of losing staff to illness was a major motivator for Mr. Campbell-Luxton.

“If COVID gets in and rips through my staff across the board I’m out of business for two weeks,” he says. “I don’t know how any businesses right now can take another cashflow hit like we in the service industry have taken. But I’m not in a position where I can just go dark for two weeks.”

Mr. Campbell-Luxton has had a few staff members miss work because they tested positive over the course of the pandemic, but never so many that he has had to shut down or reduce hours.

The Revue Cinema in Toronto will require proof of vaccination for all regular screenings and special events until April 4.

It seems like the fair thing to do to honour the commitment to people who bought tickets to screenings weeks in advance under the assumption everyone in the theatre would be vaccinated, says Serena Whitney, the director of programming.

“We’ve been getting mostly positive feedback. But there’s negative feedback from people who don’t think we should extend it just by a day, and then there’s vaccinated people who don’t think that a month is long enough to extend it. You can’t win. It’s a very scary situation, and unfortunately the onus is on businesses.”

One possible way businesses might overcome the either-or conundrum is by offering exclusive hours for vaccinated customers or patrons, says Laurence Ashworth, a marketing professor at the Queen’s University Smith School of Business

“The fundamental business problem is in their appeal to their customers, and that in turn depends on how their customers perceive the risks associated with being in a space with unvaccinated people,” he says. “If you have certain hours where it’s proof of vaccination, then it allows you to accommodate those people who will be sufficiently concerned that they do not want to put themselves into any situation with unvaccinated people.”

Businesses could offer a range of options, such as a movie theatre offering “proof of vaccine” nights or stores designating particular hours on particular days, Prof. Ashworth says. “There’s room to be dynamic.”

While Mr. Campbell-Luxton’s decision has proved polarizing, he wants people to understand he did it for the safety of his staff and his ability to keep paying the bills. He’s pleading for empathy and understanding.

“Have no illusions, we want this over as soon as possible,” he says. “But the only way it ends is if we all take care of each other.”

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