Vaccine passports: Ditching it, keeping it — or requiring 3 doses

The Bytowne Cinema is banking on the fact most residents have at least two shots, said co-owner Daniel Demois, and will continue to require proof of vaccination. (Guy Quenneville/CBC - image credit)
The Bytowne Cinema is banking on the fact most residents have at least two shots, said co-owner Daniel Demois, and will continue to require proof of vaccination. (Guy Quenneville/CBC - image credit)

As a stay-at-home dad to a toddler, James McAvoy says he and his partner, who is also expecting a baby in May, don't expect to have a ton of free time in the coming months.

But for the couple's next pandemic date, he says it will likely be at an Ottawa restaurant that still asks customers for proof of vaccination against COVID-19.

"We'll know that everyone there has to be vaccinated and there's that layer of safety for our children."

The Ontario government recently announced businesses will no longer have to seek proof of vaccination from their customers at the door as of Tuesday, March 1, ending a system that's been in place since last fall.

Businesses are now left to make "a tough call" on whether to keep the practice alive, said Dr. Robert Cushman, the acting medical officer of health in Renfrew County.

"This is a polarizing issue," he said of the province's decision and what it will mean for customers.

"People will vote with their feet."

Proof of vaccination remains

The vast majority of eligible Ottawa residents are at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19. As of late last week, 92 per cent of those five and older have one dose, 88 per cent have two, while 63 per cent of adults have three doses.

Daniel Demois, the co-owner of the Bytowne Cinema, is banking on the fact most residents have at least two shots, so the theatre will continue to require proof of vaccination.

"We're really just trying to appeal to the majority that has already kind of fought the fight on getting vaccinated and minimizing spread," he said, while being open to revisiting the decision at any time.

"It really comes down to offering an environment that makes our patrons, our audience members, and our staff a bit more comfortable."

Guy Quenneville/CBC
Guy Quenneville/CBC

Ottawa's other repertory cinema, Mayfair Theatre, will also ask its customers to show proof of vaccination.

"We want to do our part to help ensure a safe return to normal (remember that?) for our entire community," according to the theatre's announcement on Twitter.

Elsbeth Vaino, the owner of local gym Custom Strength, is pumping things up further.

When her gym reopened in late January after its fifth pandemic shutdown, Vaino began requiring all staff and customers to provide proof of three doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Everyone must also mask up, even though the province does not require it at gyms.

Besides wanting users to feel comfortable, "I personally feel that this most recent closure is entirely the fault of people that are not vaccinated," Vaino said.

"I think if people had been getting their vaccines, we would not have had to close all January. And so I have a hard time inviting people in who basically just [bring] that much harm [to] me and my staff."

WATCH | As Ontario drops vaccine passport requirement, this gym is hanging on to it

Ditching the need for vaccines

CBC reached out to a number of Ottawa's business improvement areas (BIAs). Kanata Central and Barrhaven said they were unaware as of Thursday of any businesses who will continue to require proof of vaccination on their own.

Judy Lincoln, the executive director of the Westboro Village BIA, said some of its members simply may not be willing to speak about it.

"My guess is most will chuck it," said Kevin McHale, the executive director of the Sparks Street BIA. "I think some of the bigger corporates might keep it for a little longer. But if it's one less thing that an understaffed business has to do, then they'll drop it."

PranaShanti Yoga Centre is scrapping the system but will follow all other remaining public health guidelines, said director Devinder Kaur.

The business lost some customers when the system was introduced last fall and hopes they will come back, she said.

Stu Mills/CBC
Stu Mills/CBC

"I think we've seen that this is now a turning point for us in the pandemic," Kaur said of the province's decision, which officials said was based on falling COVID-19 positivity rates and hospital admissions.

"It doesn't mean that it's going away ... but it certainly means that we have to find ways to adjust. And part of that adjustment will be letting go with the vaccine passport."

Debating the decision

Michael Estabrooks has worked at Irene's Pub for years, but only took it on as owner in the last 12 months.

"Don't buy a pub during a pandemic," he said.

Estabrooks said Thursday he would meet with his staff to discuss the pros and cons of sticking with vaccine passports.

"Either way, the province once again has put the onus on small businesses to make a decision that they're probably not necessarily qualified or want to make," he said.

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

Checking passports requires extra workers — an unwelcome added cost over the last two years, Estabrooks said.

"It goes against everything I've ever learned about hospitality," he added.

On the other hand, guests — particularly seniors who may be more at risk of contracting COVID-19 — want the peace of mind knowing everyone around them is vaccinated, he said.

"I think everyone has come to think of vaccines as the answer to getting out of this pandemic. I'm no virologist, but I do think that the message needs to change. That, as long as you are properly vaccinated, you're protecting yourself."

2 doses still protective

Before the Ontario government announced it was phasing out vaccine passports, some questioned the system's efficacy, given it was predicated on two doses and some double-vaccinated people were still getting infected during the Omicron surge.

Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen's University and a member of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said data from Denmark and the United Kingdom suggests those with two or three doses have "enormous" protections from severe disease.

Further research from Denmark suggests, even for fully-vaccinated people who become infected, "the odds ratio is looking pretty good" they won't transmit COVID-19 to someone else, he added.

Evans said vaccines help reduce transmission, along with measures such as masking, which is why he believe the province should have continued its proof of vaccination system for the time being.

"If I'm going out to a restaurant in the next few months, I'm going to go to a restaurant that says we're still looking at vaccine passports," said Evans.