Quebec will drop its vaccine passport requirement for all public spaces by March 14, the government announced Tuesday.
Health Minister Christian Dubé explained the decision at a news conference, saying the COVID-19 situation in the province has improved enough to gradually ease the measure.
As of Wednesday, Quebecers will no longer need to show a vaccine passport to enter liquor and cannabis stores as well as larger retail outlets.
As of Feb. 21, the passport will no longer be required in places of worship or at funerals.
By March 14, the passport will be phased out entirely, including for restaurants, gyms, cinemas and long-term care homes. Dubé said the change will coincide with the arrival of the first COVID-specific antiviral treatments in the province.
Proof of vaccination will still be required for domestic rail and air travel, as mandated by the federal government. Masks will also still be required in all public indoor spaces in the province.
WATCH | Health Minister Christian Dubé announces end of vaccine passport:
The health minister did not rule out reviving the passport if the situation in the province takes a turn for the worse.
When asked if the government's decision was affected by recent protests against vaccine mandates, Dubé said it was not the case.
"We're doing it because it's the right time to do it. Because it's safe for public health," he said. "And as I said, it's there when we need it."
Dubé had previously said there were no plans to lift mask mandates or the vaccine passport before March 14.
An improving situation
Quebec's interim director of public health, Dr. Luc Boileau, said a two-dose vaccine passport was less effective in the face of the Omicron variant.
"We cannot move forward with a standardized vaccine passport with three doses, because a lot of Quebecers, at least two million, maybe 2.5 or three million, have been infected recently, and we suggest they wait until eight to 12 weeks before receiving the third doses," he said.
By then, Boileau explained, this wave of the pandemic should be over, and the vaccine passport would have limited uses.
In addition, he said that about 86 per cent of Quebecers over the age of 60 have received a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, mitigating the risk of serious outcomes.
Dubé said he considers the vaccine passport a success, saying it did its job to protect both Quebecers and the health-care system during the Delta wave of COVID-19.
Over 600,000 eligible Quebecers who were unvaccinated chose to get vaccinated after the passport was implemented last fall, he said.
WATCH | Dr. Luc Boileau explains why Omicron made passport less viable:
Mixed reaction to the news
Jörg Hermann Fritz, an immunology professor at McGill University, said he was "struck" that the government would consider lifting the passport at this stage.
"I think it's populism, played straight and simple," he said. "The debate has been heavily politicized … it's unfortunately a political 'giving in' and throwing it all out the window. That's my interpretation."
Fritz said he wanted to see the scientific evidence to support the decision, especially considering where the province was last month, when the government announced it was expanding the vaccine passport.
"I think it's absolutely the wrong decision," he said.
Dr. Catherine Hankins, a professor of public and population health at McGill University, acknowledged that it was "difficult to know when to do this and when to wait."
She said it was highly likely that another variant will hit the province in the future — but that the province has high rates of vaccination, and a gradual reopening, while watching the situation closely, makes sense.
"The unvaccinated are really unprotected. I'm not sure what we should be doing to encourage them to get vaccinated," she said. "But the vaccinated population has been bearing a lot of weight in terms of restrictions."
She said the vaccine passport reassured people that if they went out to a restaurant, for example, that they were among other vaccinated people, so it felt safer.
"But now, with the transmissibility of this variant, [the focus is] really about protecting yourself from severe outcomes. That's what getting that booster is all about," she said.
'A little bit of anxiety'
Lisa Courtemanche, president of the union representing SAQ store workers, said she was excited to say goodbye to the vaccine passport – at least for now.
"I won't pretend it wasn't an unpleasant experience," she said, laughing.
"The repetition, receiving certain comments or even insults – there's a point where it affects morale."
Mayra Husic, who lives just north of Montreal, has been living with Stage 4 follicular lymphoma, a chronic cancer whose treatment leaves her immunocompromised. She said she appreciated having the vaccine passport in place.
She said she "knew this day would come" but said the idea of having no vaccine passport still made her nervous.
"It was nice going to Canadian Tire or these big-box stores, and seeing they were checking that made me feel really good," she said.
"So it's going to be, you know, it's going to give me a little bit of anxiety."
But Husic said she didn't plan on locking herself down, saying she was comforted by the high vaccination rate in Quebec and would assess her own risk on a case-by-case basis.
"I'm going to have to learn to accept it," she said. "I don't want to live in fear. I want to enjoy my life. Living with cancer is already difficult, and I don't want to just stay in my house."