Manitobans no longer have to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter most public places as of Tuesday, and many businesses who’ve decided to stop asking struggled with the decision.
The province scrapped the mandate, which had been in effect since Sept. 3 to combat a fourth wave of COVID-19, in its accelerated plan to lift all restrictions by mid-March and move to a "new normal."
Individual businesses and public venues can still choose to ask visitors to show a card or QR code to prove they’ve had two shots of the vaccine.
A mandate requiring health-care, daycare and education workers to show proof they are fully vaccinated or undergo frequent testing has also come to an end.
Several businesses — from restaurants to gyms — told the Free Press they will stop asking visitors for proof of vaccination following a divisive chapter of the pandemic.
Sachit Mehra, who owns East India Company in downtown Winnipeg, said the restaurant ran its decision past staff, who took "no issue" with it.
Some employees are relieved they no longer have to ask dine-in customers if they are vaccinated, Mehra said Monday.
"You want to be careful or respectful getting everybody’s thoughts on this," he said. "The cards were meant to drive vaccination rates. It’s been done."
Manitoba’s public mask use mandate and all other restrictions are to be lifted March 15.
Mehra said staff will be asked to wear masks after that date, but it will be a personal choice.
Wendy May, owner of the Oakwood Cafe in Osborne Village, decided to stop asking for proof of vaccination because businesses are no longer backed up by enforcement.
"We don’t want to put our staff in a situation where they may encounter verbal abuse," she said.
Like others who spoke to the Free Press, May doesn’t want to upset her customers.
"You’re kind of damned if you do or damned if you don’t," she said. "We hope people will trust businesses to do the right thing and not give people a hard time whichever way they choose to go. Everybody is trying to do their best."
Jay Kilgour, owner of two Fionn MacCool’s pubs in Winnipeg, said the decision to stop asking for proof was a "tough" one.
He said his pubs have received "threatening" phone calls from mandate opponents, telling them to "make the right decision" and allow unvaccinated customers.
His staff are relieved they no longer have to ask for cards or QR codes.
"We’re all just a little tired," he said. "Everybody should be respectful, regardless of where they stand on it."
In Winkler, King’s Deli Market & Eatery is reopening Tuesday after closing its dining room and switching to takeout when the mandate began.
Mandates are a divisive issue in the southern city, which has the second-lowest vaccine uptake by Manitoba health district. The restaurant did not want to contribute to the split or upset staff.
"Our messaging throughout the pandemic is: somebody has to engage with both sides," said King’s Deli owner Colton Schiller. "We’ve been trying to bridge those gaps."
Just 43.4 per cent of eligible Winkler residents have had two doses of a vaccine, as of Monday.
Eighty-two per cent of eligible Manitobans have had two shots; a total of 43.8 per cent have had three.
Tim Hortons, The Forks Market, Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Corp. casinos, City of Winnipeg facilities, GoodLife Fitness and Cineplex theatres are among the public places no longer asking for proof of vaccination.
At hospitals such as Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, essential care partners and general visitors are not being asked to show proof.
Some businesses haven’t dropped the requirement.
Hockey fans will need to show proof to attend Winnipeg Jets and Manitoba Moose games at Canada Life Centre until April 30. Some concert venues plan to temporarily keep vaccine and mask requirements.
Scott Jocelyn, president and chief executive officer of the Manitoba Hotel Association, said some of its members indicated they may continue asking for proof of vaccination.
The Manitoba Chamber of Commerce surveyed 440 employers last week, and 48 per cent said they will stop asking for vaccination proof. Twenty-nine per cent said they would still ask for proof from a combination of customers, clients and/or staff; 23 per cent were undecided.
As for masks, 42 per cent said they will not ask staff or customers to wear one after March 15.
Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Loren Remillard said many of its members are taking a "wait-and-see approach" regarding proof of vaccination, as owners are worried about backlash.
"I imagine you’re going to see a 50-50 split come the first few days," he said. "In a few weeks after that, you will see more no longer asking for proof of vaccination."
After hearing from customers on both sides, Promenade Cafe and Wine in St. Boniface is closed for a week to see how things play out.
"We don’t know which way we’re going to go," said owner Shawn Brandson.
Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin announced Feb. 11 the province was speeding up plans to end restrictions.
"It’s time for a new normal to begin in Manitoba," Stefanson said that day.
Manitoba moved to the yellow (caution) alert level on its pandemic response Feb. 15, and no longer has restrictions on gathering sizes. Close contacts of a person who tests positive are no longer required to self-isolate.
Winnipeg critical care physician Dr. Doug Eyolfson is "very nervous" about Tuesday’s changes, saying there’s "no practical reason" to lift proof of vaccination requirements.
"I think (the province) is doing too much too soon," the former Liberal member of Parliament said.
Scrapping the mandate for health-care staff is "profoundly dangerous and irresponsible," he said, adding it’s difficult to predict how it could impact the health-care system due to a lack of testing and tracing.
"We won’t know unless more patients come in to the hospital and ICU (intensive care unit)."
Manitoba Child Care Association president-elect Lynda Raible said daycare centres are grappling with whether to keep a proof of vaccine requirement.
"There’s lots of apprehension about letting down our guard with some of our most vulnerable population," she said. "It’s a difficult spot to be put in. You want to do right for the families."
A survey of MCCA members found 38 per cent will continue to ask staff to show proof of vaccination or undergo regular testing.