Peterborough-area restaurant owners face challenges implementing vaccine passport requirement

Loss of customers and staffing concerns seen as potential fallouts of new measure, but most patrons have been cooperative

Ashburnham Ale House owners Nollie and Scott Wood, pictured in June 2020 preparing for the reopening of their restaurant's patios during the first pandemic summer. According to Scott, while the proof of vaccination requirement is "a pain", almost all of his customers have been fine with it. (Photo: Bruce Head / kawarthaNOW)
Ashburnham Ale House owners Nollie and Scott Wood, pictured in June 2020 preparing for the reopening of their restaurant's patios during the first pandemic summer. According to Scott, while the proof of vaccination requirement is "a pain", almost all of his customers have been fine with it. (Photo: Bruce Head / kawarthaNOW)

Time will tell if the legislated proof of vaccination requirement of restaurant patrons will make a noticeable difference in reducing the impact of COVID-19 but, short term, it has seen varying actions taken by eatery owners and operators.

As of Wednesday (September 22), those seeking access to a long list of premises, including restaurants, must show proof of having been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as well as proof of identification showing their name and date of birth.

Failure to comply with the requirement can result in charges under the Reopening Ontario Act with a set fine amount of $750 for individuals and $1,000 for corporations. Maximum penalties based on a prosecution include fines of up to $100,000 and up to a year in jail for an individual, up to $500,000 and up to a year in jail for an individual who is a director or officer of a corporation, and up to $10 million for a corporation.

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Based on a flurry of social media posts, the proof of vaccination requirement is causing the most consternation in the restaurant sector, with owners having to make a difficult choice based on what’s right for their business.

Does a restaurant carry on as per normal, turning no one away at the risk of being fined or charged, or comply with the requirement at the risk of losing those customers who aren’t fully vaccinated?

Jodi Hogarth, the owner of Honky Tonk Restaurant on Ward Street in Bridgenorth, is complying with the requirement — but not without a fair number of concerns.

“The first day, we had to turn four or five people away that didn’t have their vaccine slips with them,” she says.

“A couple of them we knew were vaccinated because they’ve been in before and we discussed it, but we didn’t visually see it so we told them to bring it next time. They might not come back because we wouldn’t let them in despite knowing they’re vaccinated, but we have to follow the rules.”

Noting all her staff — most have been with her several years — are fully vaccinated, Hogarth says one customer asked to see proof of vaccination from one of her staff.

“I have no problem with that, even though it’s not the law,” she adds.

Asking patrons for proof of vaccination, says Hogarth, is “nerve wracking.”

“The girls don’t want to do it. Yesterday (Wednesday}, I had to deal with a customer who just walked in and sat down. When he was asked for his vaccine slip, he said ‘Don’t be silly, just serve me.’ And he’s a regular. Probably 90 per cent of my business is repeat customers.”

Going takeout only wasn’t an option, says Hogarth, as most of their menu is of the breakfast variety.

“Who wants to take out over easy eggs? By the time you get to the parking lot, they’re cold.”

Even during the lockdowns, she says it was cheaper to close and pay her rent from savings than go the takeout route, adding “My hydro bill is about $1,500 a month, but when I shut down it was $150.”

Asked for her thoughts on restaurant owners who aren’t asking for proof of full vaccination from their customers, Hogarth says that wasn’t a consideration in her mind.

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“I can lose regular customers and end up belly up or I can not comply and be fined through the ass and end up belly up, so I might as well give it a good shot. There’s a big sign on the door that says you must provide proof. If you walk in past that sign (without providing of vaccination), you’re the problem, not me.”

“So far, 99.9 per cent of people have been awesome and totally in compliance. They support us. We had a full restaurant this morning (Thursday). We had to ask one person to leave and everyone there supported us in that.”

Meanwhile, at Apollo Grill’s two Peterborough locations — one in Mapleridge Plaza on Lansdowne Street West and the other in the Towerhill Plaza — co-owner Kerry Ladoucier-Rennick has taken a different approach, by completing closing indoor dining and going the takeout and delivery route only.

“I don’t have a bouncer at the door — my girl is behind plexiglass at the counter,” she says, adding “I’m not hiring somebody to do that (check for vaccine confirmation at the door).”

“We didn’t receive emails or instructions from the government or our local health unit giving us the tools and the education and the training for us to implement this. My girls wouldn’t know, if they looked at somebody’s certificate, if it’s theirs or if it’s fake. What are they looking for?”

According to Ladoucier-Rennick, closing indoor dining means the restaurant can avoid upsetting customers on both sides of the vaccine passport debate.

“We thought, if we ask people for it (vaccination proof), those we turn away are going to be upset and a lot of them would be regulars. If we don’t ask, the people who are double vaccinated and feel everyone should be, are going to be very upset.”

“When customers are upset they post one-star reviews, which hurts business. They call the health unit, which ties up health inspectors coming out to handle silly little complaints.”

Ladoucier-Rennick admits defying the legislation and allowing all through the doors, vaccinated or not, “was a thought” but quickly adds “You’re screwed either way. People are going to say ‘Why didn’t you ask me (for proof of vaccination)? Are you telling me all these people aren’t vaccinated? I don’t want to sit here then.”

She notes most of the comments on Apollo Grill’s Facebook page have been positive.

“They’re saying ‘Good for you … you’re not playing this game. You’re not discriminating’ There are some who are twisting things and trying so hard to make this into us being anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. Vaccines are a very different issue from the vaccine passports.”

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One restaurant south of Peterborough that is outright defying the proof of vaccination requirement is Local No 90 Bar and Kitchen in Port Hope, with owner Dana Hubbard pledging via Facebook to “operate as normal.”

“I cannot in good conscious participate in creating segregation amongst a community who has shown my business support and love throughout the years,” reads her Facebook post, which has seen more than 1,000 comments since she posted it on Wednesday.

That action is in stark contrast to the owners’ approach at two Peterborough restaurants: Imperial Tandor on Lansdowne Street West and Ashburnham Ale House on Hunter Street East.

“For the safety of our guests as well as our staff, it’s important for us to introduce policies for the benefit of everybody,” says Imperial Tandor co-owner Jim Grover. “We are taking this very seriously. We have a very strict policy that our staff is double vaccinated or provide us proof of a negative COVID test.”

Although it’s only been two days since the proof of vaccine requirement came into effect, Grover says no problems with customers have been encountered.

“Our patrons have been very cooperative,” he says.

Grover adds the risk of losing customers because of the proof of vaccine requirement pales in comparison to be being compliant with provincial legislation and keeping all who enter his restaurant’s doors safe.

“Sometimes you have to make those hard decisions, right?”

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Meanwhile, Ashburnham Ale House owner Scott Wood admits “It’s a pain” but says it’s the right thing to do as a responsible owner.

“We are on the front lines. The direction we’ve given our staff is to go through with compliance and do your best to be expedient and step people through the process. In the event someone gives you a hard time and get confrontational, we’ll call public health and the police if necessary. What else can we do?”

“It’s been going really well so far,” he adds. “It’s a lot of work, but 99 per cent of those coming through the door are aware they need proof of vaccination. They’re ready to display that and they’re fine with it — they really are.”

Wood says, despite the differing opinions on the requirement and the debate that’s stirring up, there remains a bigger issue at play.

“I just wish more Canadians would go and get vaccinated so we wouldn’t need a vaccine passport,” he explains. “Freedom of choice, sure … but in order to get on with this and get to not having to have a vaccine passport, the answer is getting vaccinated. It’s a simple as that. Without doing that, I don’t see a way forward.”