Some Sask. cannabis, liquor retailers confused as new proof of COVID-19 vaccination program begins

·8 min read
Anyone with a MySaskHealthRecord account can now view their COVID-19 vaccination record and digital QR code. (Matthew Howard/CBC - image credit)
Anyone with a MySaskHealthRecord account can now view their COVID-19 vaccination record and digital QR code. (Matthew Howard/CBC - image credit)

Saskatchewan's program requiring residents to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19, or a negative COVID test result, to enter some businesses and event venues officially began Friday — bringing praise from some, but confusion and concern from some operators of standalone liquor and cannabis retail locations.

The program, which came into effect Friday, is meant to encourage those who are eligible but unvaccinated to finally get their shots. It applies to a varied but not comprehensive swath of activities and locations, including:

  • Restaurants (indoor dining only).

  • Nightclubs, bars, taverns and other licensed establishments.

  • Event and entertainment venues, including conference centres, casinos, movie theatres, concert venues, live-music venues, museums, and indoor facilities hosting ticketed sporting events.

  • Standalone liquor and and cannabis retail sales locations.

  • Indoor fitness centres and gyms.

The government will not require proof of vaccination for the following:

  • Retail businesses, including grocery stores.

  • Off-sale liquor stores and liquor stores located in other retail stores (excluding standalone liquor and cannabis retail).

  • Places of worship.

  • Fast-food restaurants offering takeout and delivery.

  • Health-care services, professional services or personal services.

  • Hotels or other lodging.

  • Facilities hosting non-ticketed amateur sporting events, including youth athletics and recreational leagues.

  • Business meetings and places of business closed to the general public, unless otherwise directed by the business or employer.

  • Private gatherings held at an indoor public residence.

Children under the age of 12 are exempt from the proof of vaccination or negative test requirements.

'It's going awesome': pub owner

Nathan Snell, owner of the Cathedral Social Hall in Saskatoon, said the adjustment to the new rules went smoothly Friday.

"It's going awesome," he said.

"It's been all kind of spelled out for us what we have to do and and so we've done ... some training exactly how we handle it."

No customers have resisted showing their proof of vaccination so far, the pub owner said.

Staff at Caraway Grill in Regina also didn't seem to have trouble keeping up with the new rules, according to the restaurant's manager.

"It's going good so far," said Jasdeep Pannu. "It was busy."

People waited at the Regina restaurant to get their proof of vaccination checked before sitting down for lunch.

"Customers are being so supportive with us," said Pannu.

Richard Agecoutay/CBC
Richard Agecoutay/CBC

Not enough notice: Prairie Cannabis owner

The province first announced the proof of vaccination policy on Sept. 16.

But confusion prevailed in some stores as the rules came into effect on Friday, after the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority added standalone liquor and cannabis retail sales locations to the list of affected locations.

Retailers say they were only notified of that change on Tuesday.

As of Friday afternoon, a government website offering information for businesses about the proof of vaccination requirements did not specifically list standalone liquor stores and cannabis retailers.

That page does, however, link to an FAQ page that lists those locations under "event and entertainment venues" that are subject to the requirement.

Province of Saskatchewan
Province of Saskatchewan

Many liquor and cannabis retailers have voiced confusion and a feeling of being blindsided by the policy change.

Jim Southam owns Prairie Cannabis, which has three retail locations in Saskatchewan. He said the province did not provide enough notice.

"We feel like we're not prepared yet. It's been a little bit stressful in the last couple days. It was unfair to just give us two and a half days' notice for such a huge change in policy, and we're doing the best we can," Southam said.

He said the main challenge is informing the public about the change, as earlier in the pandemic, liquor and cannabis retailers were treated as essential services.

"There were no official provincial announcements letting the public know. Our primary concern is putting our employees on the front line of informing the public of the provincial health mandates. We don't feel it's fair that responsibility was placed on us," he said.

Southam said he has not received any definite explanation for the change from the SLGA, and is eagerly awaiting the health ministry's rationale.

Another source of confusion among cannabis retailers is the fact the restriction applies only to standalone stores, while integrated stores — those operating essentially as "stores within a store" — are exempt. Such stores are typically found in smaller communities, Southam said.

"I don't think it was a very well-thought-out plan. There's a lot of uncertainty and a lot of things that are not very clear at the moment," he said.

Singling out liquor stores creates division: distillery

Adam Sperling, president and CEO of Sperling Silver Distillery in Regina, agrees.

"My first response was 'why are we the only province in Canada deeming alcohol non-essential?'" he said.

Sperling said he understands the intent is to boost vaccination rates, but worries about an increasing divide within the business industry.

He said the Prairie Craft Spirits Association, an industry group of which he is a member, is asking for an umbrella policy for all retailers.

"We're asking why they are not covering all the retails and singling out liquor stores [in the policy]," he said.

"It just creates more division when there's enough division already."

NDP MLA Aleana Young, the Opposition's critic for jobs and the economy, accused the Saskatchewan Party government of failing to provide timely guidance to local businesses and employees.

Speaking to reporters Friday, she said there are many unanswered questions about the plan.

"The government is creating a two-tier system — off-sales are not covered, nor liquor stores contained within other retail locations … but cannabis shops and liquor stores are contained," she said.

"To say [the] public health order doesn't make any sense to me would be an understatement."

Young said she has sent emails to the government seeking clarification but had not received any response.

CBC News has also reached out SLGA for comment.

In an email to CBC, the government of Saskatchewan said COVID-19 measures continue to evolve.

"The list of required services and spaces had been refined since the first announcement and these locations were subsequently added," said the government.

"We do recognize the notification period was shorter and we understand it has created a bit of a challenge. We thank the operators for their cooperation."

In the email the government reminded people the interim province-wide mandatory masking order remains in effect for all indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

"Indoor public spaces are any enclosed space other than a private home or dwelling," said the government.

"This may include but is not exclusive to workplaces, retail locations, recreational venues, eating and dining establishments and professional buildings."

More information and financial support needed, says CFIB

Overall, more support from the province is needed for business to navigate the new rules, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) said.

"There's still quite a bit of information missing," said Jonathan Alward, director of provincial affairs for the prairies branch of the CFIB.

In addition to more guidance, Alward said businesses also need financial help from the province.

"If they have to hire another employee, get hardware to check, training — those are huge costs for businesses at a time when it's difficult to find staff, and many are still reeling from a year and a half of on and off restrictions."

The CFIB reached out to the province to discuss outstanding questions that need to be answered, said Alward.

"I think the province is listening," he said.

"Unfortunately, you know, it needed to be done already.

Requirement for public employees, testing

Public service employees were also required to provide proof of vaccination by Oct. 1 or provide a negative COVID-19 test result at least every seven days. The testing requirement also applies to employees who have only received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Proof of vaccination is also now required for all Saskatchewan Health Authority employees.

People can access their medical history on the eHealth website, which includes a downloadable vaccination status QR code that can then be used with the province's SK Vaccine Wallet app to easily display one's vaccination status.

For those who don't have a phone, computer or printer, the Ministry of Health says other options can be considered for proof of COVID-19 vaccination:

  • A wallet card or earlier version of your MySaskHealthRecord COVID-19 vaccine certificate.

  • A COVID-19 vaccine printout from Saskatchewan Health Authority Public Health.

People who don't have their wallet card can call their local public health office and request a printout of their vaccination record.

People who don't show proof of vaccination can present a negative COVID-19 test result from within the last 72 hours.

They must pay for the test themselves, the province has said.

A self-administered take-home rapid antigen test won't be accepted as valid proof of negative COVID-19 results.

Here's a list of private licensed labs offering COVID-19 tests.

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