Health & Safety
Business owners await news on future of Alberta’s proof-of-vaccine program
By Amanda Stephenson
CALGARY — At the Rose & Crown in Banff, Alta., Vern Iskauskas is looking forward to an expected announcement from Premier Jason Kenney this week with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
The owner of the long-standing pub and popular live music venue said he welcomes Kenney’s comments from last week stating that Alberta’s COVID cabinet committee is poised to approve a plan to lift public health restrictions.
But the UCP government’s signalled intention to ditch the province’s proof-of-vaccine program first has Iskauskas feeling nervous.
“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 afterwards, 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.”
Alberta’s Restrictions Exemption Program, or REP, was introduced last fall in an effort to curb spiking COVID-19 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.
Last week, Kenney said Alberta cannot continue to rely on “damaging restrictions” to deal with COVID-19 and that a plan to remove restrictions is coming “within days.” In a tweet Feb. 4, the premier said the COVID cabinet committee will approve a plan to lift restrictions, “starting with the Restrictions Exemption Program.”
Ernie Tsu, owner of Calgary’s Trolley 5 Brewpub and president of the Alberta Hospitality Association, said what most restaurants and pubs want is to see a lifting of the public health rules instituted in December, when the Omicron wave first start raging. The rules include bans on billiards and live music, rules about how many people can be seated at a table, and a liquor curfew.
The Alberta Hospitality Association supported the proof-of-vaccine program when it was brought in last fall, and Tsu said it would still support it if it meant a lifting of the other rules impacting the industry’s revenues.
“We’ve been firing letters to the government all weekend,” Tsu said. “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.”
Many other business owners feel mixed emotions over the idea of scrapping the REP.
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.”
In an emailed statement, Calgary Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive Deborah Yedlin said measures like vaccine certification have helped avoid the need for more drastic restrictions. She said businesses are eager to fully open without restrictions, but public health and consumer confidence will be key to success.
“We urge close collaboration with public health officials to ensure policy decisions are informed by data, such as hospitalization rates, and complemented by adequate tools including access to testing and contact tracing,” Yedlin said.
The Edmonton Chamber said 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.
— With files from Fakiha Baig in Edmonton.
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