Ontario businesses cautiously optimistic about vaccine passports

It’s better than another lockdown — but not by much.

With Ontario set to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine passport for everything from attending concerts to indoor dining, that’s the message from many business owners and lobby groups.

“Our highest priority right now is making sure there won’t be another shutdown. There can be no consideration of a shutdown,” Retail Council of Canada spokesperson Michelle Wasylyshen said Saturday.

On Friday, a senior government source told the Star’s Rob Ferguson that proof of vaccination would be mandatory “within weeks” for a wide variety of non-essential tasks, something Premier Doug Ford had resisted for months.

The news comes as Ontario is seeing an increase in case counts, driven by the highly-infectious Delta variant. Saturday, the government reported 835 new cases, the highest total since early June.

For Toronto concert promoter Jeff Cohen, who also owns the Horseshoe Tavern, the devil is in the passport details.

“If it’s a prelude to allowing full capacity again, it’s wonderful news. Bring it on. But if it’s just on top of the restrictions we’ve already got, it’s really not helpful,” said Cohen, adding that just a third of Ontario’s live music venues have opened up since indoor concerts were allowed under Step 3 of the province’s reopening in July.

Capacity restrictions — combined with social distancing regulations — mean it isn’t worth opening most venues up in an industry built on packing fans in, Cohen said.

Nor, he added, is it an attractive proposition for musicians themselves.

“If you’re an artist and you can play to 100 per cent capacity in Buffalo, why the hell would you come to Toronto and play at 23 per cent capacity?” said Cohen. “Most of our September and October shows have already cancelled.”

Restaurants already reeling from 18 months of pandemic-related restrictions could be side-swiped by the government’s aim of slowing COVID’s fourth wave said Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

“Restaurants can barely find enough staff as it is, and now they’re going to have people spending time checking people’s credentials,” said a frustrated Kelly, who urged the government to mitigate the business fallout of a passport by loosening some existing restrictions.

“The sweetener the government can add is to relax some of the other restrictions when they do this, especially capacity limits,” said Kelly.

Still, opinion is far from unanimous.

Erin Benjamin, CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association, argues a province-wide requirement is a lot better than the patchwork approach which had been developing.

“It will help prevent the chaos that happens if everybody’s doing their own thing,” said Benjamin, whose association represents venues, festivals, promoters and agents.

Benjamin also suggested that some concertgoers could be more comfortable knowing fellow music fans are vaccinated. “It will helps consumer confidence.”

Over the last few weeks, several major sports and live event companies based in Ontario — including Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Toronto Blue Jays, Toronto International Film Festival and Mirvish Entertainment — have announced fans won’t be allowed in without being vaccinated or a recent negative COVID test.

Friday, TD bank chief economist Beata Caranci also argued that provinces which don’t have a vaccine passport will see slower economic growth over the next few quarters.