It didn’t take long for Bill Mahfouz to face customer backlash over Ontario’s new proof-of-vaccine requirements, which came into effect last week.
On Sept. 22, the first day the province required restaurants to ask for proof of COVID-19 vaccination for everyone who was dining indoors, the second or third customer of Benny’s All Day family restaurant in Rockland, Ont., became aggressive, according to Mahfouz.
“I was in the back and he had a confrontation with the server in front, and he refused to show anything and, you know, started spouting off anti-vaccine, anti-mask regulations and all that and started screaming and yelling and then became offensive,” said Mahfouz, the restaurant’s owner.
“I got to the front and he was swearing and got physical, slammed the door – almost broke it,” he said.
“I met him outside on the patio. And then he threatened to come back and fill up his truck with bricks and destroy the place.”
Mahfouz said that this was one isolated incident and most customers have been co-operative, but he doesn’t like that his young staff and servers have to deal with these problems.
“That’s my biggest concern. I want to protect my staff first and foremost,” he said.
“Most of the time we have 16-year-old hostesses. And that’s just not OK. Nobody should be abused.”
Many small business owners have concerns about proof-of-vaccination systems, said Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).
“Business owners are very worried about basically becoming the vaccine police,” he said.
“We’ve had some restaurant owners let us know that there are actually operating in fear right now.”
“One restaurant owner told us that in fact, she has she refused to open her restaurant until the rest of her staff arrived because the previous day there was an altercation with a customer that was very unhappy about being refused service. These are the very real situations business owners are finding themselves in. And it’s not pretty.”
Some rural Alberta restaurants face restrictions exemption program backlash
It’s not just customer confrontations that have restaurant owners worried.
“We’ve had a couple of incidents at the door, just making sure that we are checking IDs, and unfortunately, we were not able to look after them,” Rieley Kay, co-owner of Cilantro and Chive in Lacombe, Alta., said.
“The most negative feedback we’ve got has been online, on the phone or through the mail. It’s people that aren’t coming through our doors.”
Some restaurants have decided not to open at all. The Langdon Firehouse Bar & Grill in Langdon, Alta., temporarily shut its doors to in-person dining after its staff were threatened online.
“We made the decision to close because the comments that were coming at us were significant enough that we didn’t feel confident or safe in opening the doors and having our staff deal with this backlash,” co-owner Aleesha Gosling told Global News last week.
The restaurant has since reopened to fully vaccinated guests, with security staff in place, according to its Facebook page.
Increased demand for security guards
Mahfouz estimates that he has had to turn away 10 to 15 customers every day since Ontario introduced its vaccine passport system.
He said he wishes the provincial government had prepared businesses better for the change.
“They didn’t really put a lot of thought into it,” he said, adding that waiting until a planned provincial app was ready would have made things easier.
“Now we have to hire more staff and take a chance that they might get verbally abused or physically. And it’s tough stuff for that first month.”
Ontario Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton said at a press conference Monday that the government “continue(s) to put out supports and tools to businesses.” He pointed to a toll-free number for workers concerned about workplace safety (1-877-202-0008) and inspectors taking an “education-first” approach with businesses.
“To the public out there, please just treat all of these workers with respect that they deserve because they’ve been through an awful lot in the last 18 or 19 months,” he said.
Governments are “pushing more and more public health responsibilities down to the business owner,” Kelly said. “They now have the costs of screening unvaccinated people out of their businesses. They have to take the risks associated with this.”
“If people are unhappy, they should be raising that with their elected politicians, not the poor business owner that basically is hanging on by their fingernails and is being required by law to implement new government legislation.”
“You have anger issues with this law or this mandate or whatever you want to call it? Take it up with your MPP, your MP. Don’t take it out on us,” he said. “We’re just following the law.”
—with files from Global News’ Jamie Mauracher, Carolyn Kury de Castillo and Chris Chacon
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.