Province’s vaccine passport aid ‘a nice gesture,’ Alberta business owners say, but too little too late

Author of the article:

Hamdi Issawi

Action Potential Fitness co-owner Zita Dubé-Lockhart co-owns a gymnasium business on Sept. 17, 2021 through the changing COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the provincial government. The gym has a mandatory vaccination program to keep their clients safe. Photo by Ian Kucerak
Action Potential Fitness co-owner Zita Dubé-Lockhart co-owns a gymnasium business on Sept. 17, 2021 through the changing COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the provincial government. The gym has a mandatory vaccination program to keep their clients safe. Photo by Ian Kucerak Photo by Ian Kucerak /Postmedia

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For employers struggling to implement Alberta’s vaccine passport program, the promise of money is a lot less useful than cash in hand, say business owners reacting to new government supports.

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On Thursday, the Alberta government introduced help for businesses adopting the province’s Restriction Exemption Program, which requires certain businesses to screen customers who fail to provide proof of vaccination or provide a valid negative COVID-19 test result (in lieu of a medical exemption), or operate under public health restrictions.

The assistance includes a $2,000 grant for eligible businesses to offset the cost of opting in to the program. While applications for the grant open in four to six weeks, the government is also creating new legislation to provide legal protection for employers who require staff to vaccinate.

Zita Dubé-Lockhart, co-owner of Action Potential Fitness, a boutique gym in west Edmonton, said while she’s excited that the province is recognizing the program’s financial burden on businesses, such as additional staff to verify proof of vaccination, employers could have used that support before the program took effect on Sept. 20.

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“Anybody who has lived in a paycheck-to-paycheck world — which is what a lot of businesses are living through COVID — will understand that the promise of money is a lot less effective than actual cash in hand,” she said. “We’re still having to dip into reserves of money that we just don’t have.”

The government will also dedicate $1 million to training and education for workers charged with implementing the program. Dubé-Lockhart said this support is welcome given the polarized reception to vaccine passports in the province, and the fact that non-violent crisis intervention isn’t typically taught to retail employees.

With those funds, industry associations can apply for grants to develop or procure training intended to prepare staff for on the job challenges.

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But as far as Alberta Hospitality Association president Ernie Tsu is concerned, that’s too little and too late for restaurants that have been scrambling to train front-door staff or hire security to do the job over the past two weeks.

Also the owner of Trolley 5, a Calgary brewpub, Tsu said he and others in the industry are no strangers to hostile customers opposed to vaccine passports. While the training grant was “a nice gesture,” he added, the government should have funnelled funds toward the security costs incurred by businesses since the program launched.

“There should have been far more preparation into how the vaccine passport was going to affect business,” he said. “It was up to every restaurant to fend for themselves.”

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For both Dubé-Lockhart and Tsu, the supports do little to help with what they see as a major problem with the program itself, which is that businesses within the scope feel like they’re caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to serving customers and staying open.

The alternative to implementing the restrictions exemption program is for businesses to operate under more demanding public health restrictions. Gyms, for example, would have to cancel indoor group classes and activities, while restaurants would be closed to indoor dining.

“The kind of thing that would ordinarily be covered by at least bylaws, if not public health orders, has now been put in our hands,” Dubé-Lockhart said, “and I think that evokes a lot of anger from customers because the person accountable for the decision of whether or not they can enter the facility is in fact the business owner.”

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