A handful of Hamilton business owners are refusing to enforce Ontario's proof-of-vaccination policies that are meant to stop the spread of COVID-19, CBC Hamilton has confirmed.
The province's COVID-19 vaccine certification policy requires showing proof of full vaccination and matching identification to enter businesses such as bars, casinos, gyms, restaurants, sports arenas and theatres.
The program came into effect last Wednesday, and already, the city says more than 10 businesses are being investigated for dismissing the vaccine passport.
The city says its current approach is solely focused on educating business owners on the policy.
The Ministry of Labour confirmed the "education-first" approach is being applied across the province, with Ontario offences officers working with local bylaw, an approach "in line with the province's response throughout the pandemic."
Businesses that don't comply to the Reopening Ontario Act can face a ticket of $1,000 or a penalty of up to $10 million, the ministry said.
At least a dozen Hamilton businesses, mostly restaurants, appeared recently on websites and social media groups that list those opposed to enforcing provincial proof-of-vaccination policies. Some of those sites function as directories for businesses across Canada.
CBC Hamilton documented the Hamilton-based businesses on the site last week and reached out to owners for clarity on their vaccine policy stance.
Some owners confirmed they weren't enforcing the policy, sharing concerns about the vaccine itself and the financial impact of regulations. Others said they were trying to remove their listing and were in fact enforcing the policy.
What businesses that won't enforce passports say
Downtown restaurant Nique appeared recently on a closed Facebook group against the vaccine passport. On Monday morning, its Instagram account shared conversations it had with would-be patrons, confirming it would not be enforcing the policy.
When contacted Monday, Nique owner Harrison Hennick said: "I believe our human rights laws supersede anything our government is trying to do."
Hennick also said he is vaccinated but he was unsure about the efficacy of the vaccine.
Other businesses, such as The Harbour Diner, were listed last week on a "no pass" anti-vaccination policy website. (By Sunday evening, the site was scrubbed of its listings).
Owner Jenna Graham said in an interview Friday the restaurant is not enforcing proof-of-vaccination, and compared the vaccine passports to racial segregation.
"We're not going to backpedal to a time where being racist was a thing," she said. "[Unvaccinated people] are being enslaved, they're being forced now not to be allowed to go out of their homes to go eat ... we're being owned by the government."
She also said her staff support her decision to flout the rules and she's not concerned it'll lead to an outbreak.
Jungle Hut Entertainment owner Robert Jebailey also compared vaccine passports to racial segregation.
He said the regulation exacerbated the financial challenges he has already faced during the pandemic, adding that he may lose his home due to a lack of income. He said the government is forcing businesses to make health choices for his customers by enforcing the vaccine passport.
Bistro Vie, Bliss Kitchen, El Ricon Paisa and High Voltage Health were reached but declined to comment. Several more were listed, but could not be reached.
11 active city investigations as of Friday
City of Hamilton spokesperson Ava van Heerden said bylaw officers are aware of online groups and websites that oppose the vaccine passport.
"Staff are starting with a progressive enforcement approach to the new regulations through providing education to achieve compliance," she wrote in an email on Friday.
"Bylaw has attended approximately 50 businesses on Wednesday and Thursday. It is important to note that education will take longer at each location as bylaw officers will need to speak to employees, businesses, and patrons."
She added that the bylaw office had received 11 complaints as of early Friday afternoon regarding businesses not enforcing vaccine passports, and the city is investigating all of them. She didn't say which businesses are under investigation.
Controversial website doesn't tell whole story
Some businesses that appear on some of these sites are in fact enforcing the policy, however.
West End Diner and Xelf Fitness Studio said they were enforcing the vaccine certificate, but didn't like the idea. Xelf's vice-president and operations manager, Omar Qubaia, called it a "violation of human rights."
Pub Fiction owner Mark Hodge said Friday his business put itself on a website that was against the vaccine passport while it was still being proposed — but now that the rules are in effect, the pub is enforcing them, he said. Hodge had his business removed from the site by Sunday night.
Shy's Place general manager Kayla Sticklee said in an email on Friday the restaurant is enforcing vaccine certificates. She said she doesn't know how it got on the anti-vaccine passport lists circulating online, and is trying to get the business removed.
Ed's Sports Bar manager Scott Bonar said his business was listed on one of those sites by a disgruntled former employee and doesn't want to remove the listing out of fear people will attack his business for showing he is following the rules — and while he doesn't like the passport, he said he is enforcing it.
Backlash for following the rules
Many restaurants that are enforcing the policy, including The Other Bird, have faced online backlash for publicly stating they would follow the rules.
Hodge, of Pub Fiction, said enforcement has been hard on employees.
"I've got 17-, 18-year-old girls, some working themselves through college ... people are yelling at them, screaming at them because they have to show ID. Honestly, it's a nightmare."
A customer at a local McDonald's reportedly hit an employee last week after being asked to show a vaccine certificate, according to Hamilton police.
"'For a lot of employees, they feel as though ... they're going to be left hanging if they have to confront someone," said Andrew Berry-Ashpole, a longtime chef and founder of the Hamilton Hospitality Project, an Instagram page that discusses hospitality workers' issues in the city.
Berry-Ashpole ran an informal poll with nearly 100 workers that showed employees are anxious about facing backlash from customers.
Employers are obligated under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to protect workers from hazards in the workplace, including harassment.
But not enforcing the passport also poses risks for workers, say employment and labour lawyers.
"I can completely understand the frustration associated with appearing to be unpopular to your patrons with longer wait times, the administrative and operational challenges with administering the passport, but there is an obligation to do so under the law," said Muneeza Sheikh, a senior partner at Toronto-based Levitt Sheikh.
Jonquille Pak, also a Toronto-based employment lawyer, said workers can refuse unsafe work and report their concerns to the Ministry of Labour or the city.
"No one should have to choose between their health and safety and their job," she said.