The Newfoundland and Labrador government has unveiled details of its vaccine passport program a day ahead of its Friday release, with the system set to eventually cover a wide swath of the province's public life.
The passport follows in the footsteps of proof of vaccination systems in other provinces, in the form of a QR code that either lives on a smartphone app or on a physical paper copy a little smaller than a credit card. That code can be shown as proof of COVID-19 vaccination required to access myriad businesses and community spaces for those 12 and up.
The app, dubbed "NLVaxPass," stores the QR codes but not personal health information, according to the provincial government.
Businesses and organizations must download verifier app NLVaxVerify onto a mobile device to check QR codes as people enter. Photo ID or a combination of other identification must also be shown when a QR code is verified.
If the person is fully vaccinated, a green bar appears with an accompanying chime and buzz — if not, a red bar and a separate chime and vibration. Valid medical exemptions from immunization will be given a QR code and treated the same as if a person is fully vaccinated.
"Our vaccine passport apps are tools in our public health toolbox that will help stop the spread of the virus and help allow a new normal, albeit not the same as before," Premier Andrew Furey said while announcing the launch in St. John's Thursday afternoon.
According to the government, no personal information besides the person's name will appear when the code is verified, but the passport is still meant to be protected.
"Don't post it on social media," said Sarah Stoodley, minister of digital government and Service N.L., advising people to protect it as they would their provincial health cards.
Passports become mandatory Oct. 22
The free apps and codes will be released to the public Friday morning, but the passports only become mandatory Oct. 22, giving a grace period for people to get their information in order and allowing businesses and organizations the chance to figure out enforcement workflows.
"You can begin using them right away, but after two weeks, it will be mandatory," said Furey.
With the delta-driven fourth wave of the pandemic, vaccination targets have increased, and politicians at the launch stressed more people in Newfoundland and Labrador need to step up.
"We need to get to 90 per cent," said Health Minister John Haggie. "We're nearly there. It's up to you. So get your shot today, and download your app tomorrow."
The program details come as the province reported seven new confirmed cases of COVID-19 — two in Eastern Health and the rest in the Central Health region, which is dealing with an ongoing outbreak of the virus.
Those latest numbers came with an advisory for some passengers who were on two Provincial Airlines flights.
Anyone travelling on PB902 from Deer Lake to St. John's on Sunday, Sept. 26 should get tested, along with passengers in rows three to nine on PB1901 from Wabush to Sept-Iles, Quebec on Oct. 4.
As of Thursday, 81 per cent of the population was fully vaccinated, with nearly 90 per cent having had a single dose.
Where passports are required
Vaccination remains a choice, but in two weeks, entry to most recreational and non-essential activities for people 12 and up will be regulated by the passports.
Bars, lounges and indoor entertainment — from movies to theatre to music performances — will all require proof of full vaccination. Indoor seating at restaurants is also covered, but not takeout, drive-thru or patios.
Vaccine passports are mandatory for any gathering at a business or organization, from baby showers to retirement parties, and in order to access personal services like hair salons or tattoo parlours.
Indoor fitness facilities and arenas are also covered by the program. Organized sports for youth from 12 to 18 years old are exempt in what the province says is an effort to encourage physical activity.
The vaccine passports aren't mandatory for faith-based activities. If such organizations opt out of the system, they must operate at half-capacity with no singing, and they must have physical distancing and other measures in place.
While the province considered covering religious services entirely under the program, it opted not to after consulting with groups.
Vaccine passports are not required for most essential services including health-care facilities, schools and daycares, post-secondary institutions and retail stores, except car dealerships, where the passports are in effect. Transportation services, including ferries, will also be exempt.
The St. John's Board of Trade weighed in on a draft version of the plan, as businesses across the province will shoulder much of the burden of checking the passports.
"Please remember to be kind to businesses as they adopt this additional safety measure," said board of trade CEO AnnMarie Boudreau at the launch.
Out-of-province visitors will have to show proof of vaccination via a paper or electronic copy. The provincial government is working with other provinces to standardize the QR code system so travellers can have codes scanned the same as residents.
Learning curve expected, province says
The province says it will release the apps and update its COVID-19 vaccination portal at 8 a.m. NT Friday to allow people to download their QR codes.
QR codes can also be downloaded through the NLVaxPass. Up to 20 QR codes can be stored in an app to make it easier for families and people who share devices.
"We fully acknowledge there will be a learning curve for some people with this," said Stoodley.
To that end, she said there will be toll-free help lines, educational material for businesses, as well as resources available through the public library system where staff have been trained to help. For those without access to computers, there will be a toll-free phone number to call and a printed QR code can be mailed.
The province isn't providing financial support to businesses to help them comply with the program. Organizations will need their own mobile device in order to verify passports, but it doesn't need to be connected to the internet on a regular basis for the app to work.
Fines for trying to skirt the system start at $500 for people and range from $5,000 to $50,000 for businesses, along with potential jail time.
Government inspectors will be checking on the system, and police will also have the authority to issue tickets for non-compliance.
Employees at businesses that require passports also must be vaccinated, but the province is establishing a grace period of up until Dec.1 for those workers to get their shots.