TORONTO — Premier Doug Ford urged Ontarians not to take their frustrations out on businesses and their staff as a proof-of-vaccination system went into effect Wednesday for indoor dining, gyms, movie theatres and certain other venues.
"It's important that each of us remain patient, especially with business owners and front-line workers implementing the vaccine certificate," he said. "They've gone through so much during this pandemic, and deserve our support."
Ford said the system requiring proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 will be a temporary measure, but he would not divulge what his criteria will be for ending it except that it will be based on advice from the chief medical officer of health and other public health experts.
"I know that many people are concerned about the certificate, and what it means for your civil liberties," Ford said.
"Our government understands your concerns, and it's no secret that I was reluctant to use this tool, but our highest concern, what keeps me up at night, is ensuring we never lose our hard-fought progress."
Some business groups have called for Ontario to lift capacity limits - as venues such as gyms, yoga studios, bowling alleys and concert halls remain capped at 50 per cent capacity - now that all customers have to be vaccinated.
When asked Wednesday, Ford was non-committal, but said he will work with the chief medical officer on "having a few more people go into restaurants, other locations."
Customers must show a full vaccination receipt and their identification - though doctor's notes for medical exemptions are being allowed - to enter those businesses, but it doesn't apply to salons, retail stores, or essential services such as grocery stores.
The government site that people can visit to download their proof of vaccination was down for a few hours Wednesday morning for "routine maintenance," said a spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott, but it was running again by 8 a.m.
At Italian restaurant Sud Forno in downtown Toronto, diner Marie Metcalfe said the vaccine certificate system prompted her to eat indoors at a restaurant for the first time since the pandemic began.
"It was a delight to know that I could do it safely," she said. "To be able to go inside and feel safe about taking my mask off was a really comfortable feeling."
Raj Kalsi similarly showed his vaccine receipt and identification before stepping into a café on Wednesday morning.
"It's a slight inconvenience, but if we kind of keep the broader objective in mind, which is we're trying to get things back to normal to the extent that we can, I think that's an inconvenience that we can all bear," Kalsi said.
At a GoodLife Fitness gym, Sumeet Kapila called the proof-of-vaccination check at the facility "smooth."
"It's a good step, I would say, in the positive direction," he said.
Businesses have said they feel prepared to implement the system but worry about confrontations with some patrons. Health Minister Christine Elliott has advised them to call 911 in those situations if they feel threatened.
There are penalties for non-compliance but Ford said enforcement will take an educational approach at first.
Biagio Vinci, owner of Biagio’s Ristorante in downtown Toronto, said all his staff have been briefed on how to approach customers about their proof of vaccination and said he's in favour of the new system.
"I agree that people have to show that they're vaccinated in order to keep us safe and healthy," he said.
"Everybody's ready," he added. "They show us the certification documents without us asking, so I think people know that they have to prove they are vaccinated."
Not all businesses are in favour of the system. Buck and Jo's restaurant in Wingham, Ont., posted on their Facebook page that they will be "refusing to ID customers and demanding disclosure of personal health information from them."
"Buck & Jo’s have planted a Canadian flag in the middle of our dining room," they wrote. "This may be the last few square feet of a free Canada. Everyone’s Charter Rights will be defended here, and anyone is allowed to take a seat, even if Doug Ford says no."
Facebook users in a group called Ontario Businesses Against Health Pass shared information about other companies and venues that say they will not be complying with the proof-of-vaccination system, though many of the businesses are not ones subject to the certification requirements.
While venues will have to check paper or digital vaccine receipts with identification at first, the province has said it will streamline the process with a planned Oct. 22 launch of a QR code and verification app for businesses.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath criticized loopholes in the government’s proof-of-vaccination policy, including exemptions for staff and settings like retail stores and places of worship.
"We deserve to be in a situation where we can go about our lives and know that we're safe," Horwath said. "What I'm asking this premier to do is fix the holes in his vaccine certificate program."
Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's chief medical officer of health, has said he believes the system will lead to a boost in vaccinations, particularly among those aged 20 to 39 since that cohort often frequents venues covered by the system.
The latest provincial data shows that 85.3 per cent of Ontarians over the age of 12 have one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and nearly 79.4 per cent have two doses.
Ontario reported 463 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and seven more deaths linked to the virus. Elliott said 332 of those new cases were in people who are not fully vaccinated or have an unknown vaccination status.
Elliott also said 299 people are hospitalized with the virus, with 187 of them in intensive care.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2021.
Allison Jones and Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press