A major business group has slammed the Alberta government’s decision to eliminate a proof-of-vaccine program, calling it “akin to ripping the Band-Aid off before the wound has healed.”
The Calgary Chamber of Commerce issued a strongly worded statement Tuesday evening, just hours after Premier Jason Kenney announced that businesses will no longer have to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination from patrons as of midnight.
Alberta’s Restrictions Exemption Program, or REP, was introduced last fall in an effort to curb spiking case rates and encourage vaccination. It requires Albertans to show proof of double vaccination or a negative rapid test result to obtain entry to businesses operating under the program.
The program is the first to go as part of the province’s three-step plan to lift public health restrictions.
“The restriction exemption program has served its useful purpose. It has done its job,” Kenney told a news conference.
But chamber president and CEO Deborah Yedlin said that public health measures like the REP and masking remain critical to ensuring people feel comfortable dining at restaurants, attending sporting and entertainment events, going to gyms and going to work.
“Today’s announcement on the immediate removal of all pandemic measures and restrictions ignores the importance of consumer confidence in our economic recovery,” Yedlin said.
She added the chamber believes that prematurely lifting restrictions could lead to reduced revenues for businesses, as people choose to stay home and minimize the potential for exposure to the virus.
Yedlin also warned of labour shortages due to illness, and a potential increase in infection rates at schools, “sending children and teachers home and disrupting work patterns and productivity for many parents.”
Another industry group, the Alberta Hospitality Association, which represents restaurants and bar owners, wanted to see other restrictions — such as a liquor curfew, bans on live music and billiards, and rules about how many people can be seated at one table — removed before the passport program.
Instead, those restrictions remain in place until at least March 1.
“We’re in favour of whatever it takes so that we can operate our businesses at 100 per cent. If that means keeping the REP, then by all means,” said Ernie Tsu, president of the association and owner of Calgary’s Trolley 5 brewpub.
“They went against all of the stakeholder groups that wrote letters in. They didn’t listen to us at all.”
Earlier Tuesday, at the Rose & Crown in Banff, Alta., Vern Iskauskas said he was awaiting Kenney’s announcement with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
The owner of the pub and popular live music venue said he welcomes a move toward lifted restrictions, but thinks it’s a mistake to ditch the proof-of-vaccine program first.
“I’m very open to lifting restrictions, I just hope it’s done in the right way,” he said.
“We fear losing some of the loyal customers who have come back to us because they feel safe here. We also fear that if there is a little bit of a spike in cases afterward, which could happen for a variety of reasons not necessarily associated with the REP, that our industry … could be scapegoated again, with further restrictions placed upon us.”
Many other business owners said they feel mixed emotions over the idea of scrapping the passport.
Paul Shufelt, who owns Robert Spencer Hospitality Group, which operates a handful of Edmonton restaurants including Workshop Eatery and Woodshed Burgers, said he knows that if the province removes the mandate, business owners will have the ability to continue checking proof-of-vaccination for their own purposes.
But he said that’s a tough decision to make.
“Probably more than anything, I worry for my staff on the front line, whether we go one way or the other, because those are the people that tend to feel the wrath of angry or frustrated customers,” Shufelt said. “I don’t think there is a right answer, and that’s the hard part.”
“We’re welcoming a return to normalcy, but I understand both sides of it,” said Mark Petros, owner of Nick’s Steakhouse and Pizza in Calgary. “A lot of our customers work at the Foothills Hospital and the Children’s Hospital because we’re close by, and we don’t want to see the hospitals getting overloaded.”
The Edmonton Chamber said before the announcement that it supported responsible health and safety measures that allow businesses to operate while protecting customers, workers and communities.
“We would hope that any decision to ease restrictions would be made in consideration of health information and supporting data,” Jeffrey Sundquist, president and chief executive of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, said in an email.
Also on Tuesday, Saskatchewan announced a plan to lift all of its COVID-19 restrictions. Starting Monday, the province will no longer require COVID-19 vaccine passports. It is also ending its indoor mask mandate at the end of the month.
Premier Scott Moe said providing proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter businesses like restaurants had helped in the fight against spread of the virus.
But he said it also created deep divisions in the province — in effect “two classes of citizens.”
“The benefits of this policy no longer outweighs the costs,” Moe said, adding people should be able to choose whether they get vaccinated or not.