TORONTO — Businesses in Ontario were making final preparations Tuesday for the implementation of the province's vaccine certification system, saying they were uncertain how it would be received but hopeful it would roll out smoothly.
Patrons at dine-in restaurants, nightclubs, gyms, sports facilities and other venues will need to present a receipt of full vaccination along with government-issued identification starting Wednesday. Doctors' notes for medical exemptions will also be accepted.
Lovelina Antony, co-owner of the Lyfe Meditation Studio and Plant Lyfe Cafe in Toronto, said her business has taken several steps to prepare for the system, including posting signs informing customers about its requirements and training staff on how to check for proof of vaccination.
"I feel ready on our end, but in terms of how it's going to be received, I don't think any business can prepare for that," Antony said.
While venues will have to check paper or digital vaccine receipts with identification at first, the province has said it aims to launch a QR code and verification app for businesses on Oct. 22 to streamline the process. Antony said she wished the app had been ready for Wednesday.
Katia Rodrigues, a manager at Boxcar Social Riverside, a Toronto eatery, said her staff "absolutely feel ready" for the new system.
Employees have been briefed on why the system is being introduced – the government has said it's needed to protect the vulnerable and avoid another lockdown – and how to approach customers, Rodrigues said, noting that staff have a flow chart on how to greet guests and ask if they want to sit inside or outside, where proof-of-vaccination isn't' required.
"We’ve always, during this pandemic, put emphasis on people feeling safe, people feeling taken care of and that's a huge priority," she said.
Antoine Vautherot, a barista at the same cafe, said he was recently in France, where a proof-of-vaccine system rolled out, and noted that patrons there were generally "very compliant."
"I'm pretty certain that after just a few days, it's going to become part of the everyday life," he said. "I just hope that it's going to be a smooth kind of transition."
The province's top public health doctor asked Ontarians to be "kind and considerate" as the system takes effect.
Dr. Kieran Moore said he believes the system will lead to a boost in vaccinations, particularly among those aged 20 to 39.
"That age group likes to go out, naturally social, takes advantage of bars, restaurants, nightclubs," he said. "Once it clicks in in the coming days that you must be vaccinated to get inside, that will change behaviours – that's my hope."
Fines are on the table for businesses that don't comply with the checks required by the system, and for patrons who give false information.
But businesses, by-law officers, police forces and the province say enforcement will be gentle at first, meaning much of the heavy lifting will fall to businesses' front-line staff.
James Rilett, Restaurants Canada’s vice president for central Canada, said restaurants are "as prepared as they can be" but are expecting "some loss of business" and confrontations with some patrons.
He added that businesses have also expressed some confusion about medical exemptions, which the government has acknowledged could leave the system vulnerable to fraud.
Ryan Mallough, senior director of Ontario affairs at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said businesses have a "decent understanding" of what's required but there's "some stress and anxiety around what happens in a moment that doesn't go smoothly."
Randy Haluza-Delay, a Toronto resident, said he was ready to show his proof of vaccination.
"I wish we didn’t have to do that, but we're also seeing ... a high enough percentage of people who aren't vaccinated," he said. "So we've got to have some kind of proof that we're all doing the things that we need to do to keep everybody safe."
Premier Doug Ford attempted to allay concerns about the system earlier Tuesday.
He said he knew many were worried that the system would impede on their civil liberties, but he noted that the greater concern was experiencing a sudden surge in infections and having to lock down the province again.
"We need to do everything in our power to avoid future lockdowns and closures," he said in a statement. "That is why we are bringing in these exceptional measures on a temporary basis and will end them as soon as they can be responsibly removed."
Ford, who was initially opposed to vaccine certificates, announced the system earlier this month after weeks of pressure from experts, businesses and his political opponents.
Retail stores and services considered "essential,'' like grocery stores, are exempt. Children under age 12 who can't be vaccinated are also exempt, as are people under 18 entering facilities for organized sports.
The system also doesn't apply to venue staff.
The province said 85.2 per cent of eligible Ontarians had received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 79.2 per cent were fully vaccinated.
Ontario reported 574 new infections Tuesday, with 434 of those in people who weren't fully vaccinated or who had an unknown vaccination status.
- with files from John Chidley-Hill and Liam Casey.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 21, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press