TORONTO - Ontario won't make immunization against COVID-19 mandatory for any industry, Premier Doug Ford said Thursday as businesses preparing to reopen indoor services grappled with whether to ask staff and patrons if they'd been vaccinated.
The province is set to move into Step 3 of its reopening plan on Friday, which will see gyms and restaurants resume indoor operations while cinemas, theatres and other indoor attractions can welcome customers once more after months of being shut down.
Restrictions are being rolled back ahead of schedule thanks to positive pandemic trends and climbing vaccination rates – as of Thursday, 79 per cent of adult Ontarians had received one COVID-19 vaccine dose and 59 per cent had two shots.
Ford said his government isn't planning to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for workers in any industry, nor is it going to develop a provincial "vaccine passport" similar to one announced in Quebec to determine access to certain activities.
"I think it's our constitutional right to take it or not take it," he said of vaccines against the virus. "I've been out here for months, begging, pleading (for) everyone to get it, but no one should be forced to do anything."
He added that it's up to private companies to come up with their own employee vaccination policies.
"We aren't doing it, simple as that," the premier said when asked about domestic vaccine passports. "We aren’t going to have a split society."
The government has, however, pointed to the receipt of immunization people receive after getting their shots that could be presented if certain businesses or other settings ask for it.
Restaurants Canada said vaccine passports showing proof of immunization wouldn't be a "silver bullet" guaranteeing safety, citing concerns about the pressure that would place on workers.
"Many (operators) are concerned about young staff being put in the position of verifying personal information and confronting patrons," the industry group in a statement.
"Throughout the pandemic, restaurants have shown their ability to operate safely and provide an alternative to private gatherings in a regulated setting."
GoodLife Fitness said on Twitter this week that the gym chain isn't planning to require vaccination for staff or gym members entering any locations.
One Timmins, Ont., gym is taking the opposite approach.
On its website, Discover Fitness said anyone entering the facility or using its services will need to have received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, though exceptions based on medical or other grounds will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The gym also said the policy will go ahead "assuming Ontario's vaccine supply allows."
A group of Toronto strip clubs signalled this week that the businesses "would use their best efforts to ensure all staff and all dancers working in their clubs are vaccinated."
"Admission to the Toronto Area Adult Clubs will only be granted to patrons who are vaccinated. While full vaccination is optimal, first dose patrons will be admitted at this time," the Adult Entertainment Association of Canada's Toronto chapter said in a statement.
One of the businesses involved noted in a later statement that enforcing the policy will be tricky. Filmores Hotel said balancing privacy and safety concerns is a "fine line" and called verification a "dynamic process" given the various ways to access the vaccine and different shots offered around the world.
"To our patrons, if you have proof, and don’t object to producing it, please do," the statement said. "Remember, we are trying to do what’s best for our staff, entertainers, customers and the public at large."
Movie theatre chain Cineplex said it would comply with a vaccine policy if one was put place by the government.
"Until then, we feel confident in our approach, noting that we have welcomed seven million movie-lovers during the pandemic, and we’ve had zero instances of transmission traced back to any of our cinemas," spokeswoman Sarah Van Lange said in a statement.
The president of the Canadian Live Music Association said there is no industry-wide plan to ask for vaccination proof.
"Companies will be doing what they feel is best, within their understanding of local (and) provincial regulations, best practice, et cetera," Erin Benjamin said in a statement.
Benjamin also noted that some venues will remain closed because crowd capacity limits will make it financially impractical for them to open, and added that the industry is eager for details on restrictions after Step 3.
Meanwhile, the province said that on Friday it will also loosen visitor rules in congregate settings including homes for adults with disabilities, children in care and women's shelters.
Indoor and outdoor visits will be allowed with limits on capacity, and overnight absences will be permitted with no screening requirements. Residents who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 won't need to complete a negative test for the virus.
- With files from Rhythm Sachdeva
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 15, 2021.