Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine passport plan unveiled, won’t apply to retail

Ontario residents will soon have to show proof they’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to dine indoors at restaurants and go to gyms and theatres — but not necessarily to enter retail locations — the province announced Wednesday.

The “enhanced COVID-19 vaccine certificate” system, as the Ontario government is calling it, will come into effect on Sept. 22.

At a news conference Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford said the new system came from “in-depth conversations” with experts based on “evidence and best advice.

“We need to protect our hospitals, we need to avoid lockdowns at all costs. We want our kids in schools, and our businesses to stay open,” he said.

At first, fully vaccinated Ontarians will need their current receipt with a valid photo identification to enter premises covered under the new system. 

The receipts can be printed or downloaded as a PDF file to smartphones. “Fully vaccinated” here means having had two doses, with the most recent at least 14 days prior. Neither a recent COVID-19 infection nor a recent negative test will substitute for two shots, officials said at a morning briefing for media.

During the briefing, officials said that the enhanced certificate system is meant to be temporary, though how long it remains in place will depend on how the fourth wave of the pandemic unfolds in coming months.

The government says that on Oct. 22, it will shift to certificates that include QR codes containing much of the same information included on the receipts that are already available. That shift will be accompanied by the release of a “verification app” that can be used to validate the QR codes and provide the vaccination status of an individual.

Officials said that the purpose of the app is to relieve businesses and facilities of having to determine whether a patron has been vaccinated or not. 

The intention is that the enhanced certificates be usable in other provinces with vaccine passport systems in place, and eventually for them to be integrated with the federal passport for international travel, officials said.

Where will proof be needed?

The vaccine certificate system will cover “higher-risk” indoor spaces where masks can’t be worn at all times, officials said. It applies to the following settings:

  • Restaurants and bars (excluding outdoor patios, delivery and takeout).

  • Nightclubs, including outdoor areas.

  • Meeting and event spaces like banquet halls and convention centres.

  • Sports and fitness facilities and gyms, with the exception of youth recreational sports.

  • Sporting events.

  • Casinos, bingo halls and gaming establishments.

  • Concerts, music festivals, theatres and cinemas.

  • Strip clubs, bath houses and sex clubs.

  • Racing venues.

The vaccine certificate system does not apply to employees in these settings.

Essential retail, like grocery stores, are exempt, as are places of worship and hair salons, alongside other personal care businesses. 

The system also exempts children who are ineligible for vaccines (those born in 2010 and later in Ontario) and provides for personal medical exemptions that will be reflected in the impending QR codes, officials said.

The verification app will be made available to all businesses. Therefore, non-essential retailers can implement their own vaccination policies for patrons, officials said.

Enforcement measures for the certificate system will fall under the Reopening Ontario Act, officials said. Businesses, facilities and individuals who refuse to comply can face fines.

There are still several critical elements of the plan under development, officials said, and more specific guidance is expected in the coming days and weeks.

News comes after days of deliberations

Ford announced the changes at an afternoon conference, alongside Minister of Health Christine Elliott and Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health.

The news comes after two days of deliberations by the premier and his cabinet. A source with knowledge of the discussions told CBC/Radio-Canada that an initial proposal readied on Monday had been rejected.

Sources said last week that some members of the Progressive Conservative cabinet were against the province implementing its own vaccine certificate system like the ones introduced in Quebec, B.C. and Manitoba.

Until recently, Ford and Elliott had both repeatedly said that Ontario would not follow the initiatives taken in other provinces. Earlier this summer, Ford told reporters that he thought a vaccine passport would create a “split society.”

The pair also insisted that the vaccine receipts currently available from the province would be a suitable alternative to a passport system. Critics have said the receipts are susceptible to forgery, and officials at the briefing tacitly acknowledged as much, saying the QR codes would be more secure.

Pressure has mounted on Ford and his government from a myriad of physicians, infectious disease specialists and business groups to institute such a system as the province navigates a fourth wave of the pandemic.

Millions of students in Ontario are also set to return to classrooms next week, with children born in 2010 and later still not eligible to be vaccinated against the virus. The highly infectious delta variant continues to circulate in Ontario, although indicators show its spread has slowed in recent weeks. 

As of Tuesday, 76.4 per cent of eligible Ontarians had received two doses of COVID-19 vaccines, or roughly 67.7 per cent of Ontario’s total population.

Officials said today that the latest data suggests that unvaccinated people have a seven-fold higher risk of developing COVID-19 symptoms than those who have both shots. Moreover, unvaccinated people have a 27-fold higher risk of ending up in hospital and a 42-fold higher risk of needing intensive care.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist in Toronto and former member of Ontario’s now-disbanded COVID-19 vaccine distribution task force, applauded the introduction of a passport system but cautioned that it is not a panacea for ending the pandemic.

“Vaccine passports will not end the pandemic. They will not create perfectly safe indoor spaces,” he said in a series of Twitter posts.”They are an added layer of protection to help create safer indoor spaces.”

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