By Forrester Sorensen, Staff Writer
Two weeks ago, Ontario’s Provincial Government lifted the province’s vaccine mandate, meaning that proof-of-vax is no longer required for indoor, non-essential settings. Additionally, capacity limits in all indoor public settings such as gyms and theaters were lifted entirely. The Ford government also announced that the majority of mask mandates will be dropped next Monday. Though these changes provide us with a sense of familiarity, they also present new challenges and opportunities for businesses and consumers.
A major opportunity for the live entertainment and hospitality industry presents itself in the form of an increased pool of consumers. As of March 11th, approximately 19% of Ontarians are still not considered fully vaccinated. Now that the province’s vaccine mandates have been lifted, it is plausible to assume that patronage at businesses will climb as the consumer base will potentially rise by about 25%, If businesses can correspondingly increase their sales by that magnitude, it would be a huge catalyst for their post-pandemic recovery, especially for small businesses whose struggles have over the last two years have been well documented.
That potential increase in revenue could be even greater as the anticipation among those who chose to remain unvaccinated to visit certain venues for the first time in a year or two may translate into more frequent or larger purchases. This analysis of consumer behavior, though speculative, is still based on anecdotal evidence, so it will be interesting to observe how consumer trends actually shift in the wake of eased restrictions.
Given the absence of a mandatory proof-of-vaccine policy, a potential challenge for business owners now will be ensuring that the vaccinated population feels safe and confident that there is a relatively low chance of contracting the virus at their establishment with the addition of unvaccinated people into that environment. In discussions with friends, family, and other McMaster students, those who are vaccinated consistently commented that although they do not oppose the lifting of the mandate, the knowledge that everyone else in a restaurant, club, or other maskless domain was also vaccinated gave them a feeling of safety and security that no longer exists, or at least not to the same extent. Whether this hesitancy translates into lost revenues for business owners remains to be seen, but it is a phenomenon worth keeping an eye on.
Although proof of vaccination to enter indoor public spaces will no longer be enforced by the province, private businesses may still choose to implement a vaccine policy. As Dr. Chris MacDonald, a Professor of Ethics at Ryerson University, frames it, “Just because the mandate has been lifted, doesn’t mean that business owners are required to let unvaccinated people in, it just means they’re no longer required to stop them from entering”. For example, businesses in the personal care industry such as barber shops or beauty salons, which naturally entail a significant amount of contact between customers and employees, may choose to implement their own vaccine policy in order to protect vulnerable customers as well as workers and their families.
The decision of whether or not to uphold a proof-of-vaccination policy will likely be made on a business-by-business basis as each owner or management team will have to weigh the unique costs and benefits regarding their business. However, regardless of which option they choose, they risk alienating a significant portion of their customer base.
If the general public can now enter businesses unvaccinated, it begs the question, can employers enforce a vaccine policy onto their employees? According to employment and labour lawyer Howard Levitt, the answer is essentially yes, with the condition that the vaccine policy does not discriminate against employees on human rights grounds such as race, gender, or sexual orientation. As it turns out, similar to when dealing with customers, government requirements have little impact on whether or not an employer implements a mandatory vaccine policy.
As our province and country work toward establishing a new normal by lifting pandemic restrictions, conflicting economic forces will shape the beginning of the post-Covid era. This potential increase in consumer activity in the wake of eliminated mandates directly counters the Bank of Canada’s plan of raising interest rates to slow down Canada’s economy, and could therefore exacerbate Canada’s already historically high inflation. It will be interesting to see which of these conflicting macroeconomic forces prevail in this economically and politically tumultuous time.