Wed. Jan 26th, 2022

The province’s major retailers say there are “a lot of unanswered questions” about how to enforce the new vaccine passport requirement.

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More than 24 hours after Quebec chose to extend the vaccine pass to major stores, retailers across the province are still in the dark about exactly how to enforce the new restriction.

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Prime Minister François Legault said on Thursday that the vaccine pass would become mandatory from January 24 at big-box retailers such as Costco, Walmart and Canadian Tire. Small shops – fewer than 1,500 square meters or about 16,000 square meters in size – and common areas in shopping malls will be exempt from the measure, as will retailers who pick up most of their business from food sales or pharmacy operations, Legault added.

Hardware stores that Quebec considered to be significant business earlier in the pandemic are no longer recognized as such.

Retailers are now waiting for the government to publish the official decree outlining the details of the new claim next week. Key uncertainties include whether to give unvaccinated customers access to certain emergency repair services and how to treat people who refuse to be pricked for medical reasons, industry executives said.

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“There are many unanswered questions,” said Jean-Guy Côté, head of the Quebec Retail Council, which represents a majority of the province’s retailers and distributors. “We know the date the new requirement will take effect and the size of the stores that will be affected, but not much else.”

Retailers like Walmart, whose locations include significant pharmacy and food sections, appear to pose a particular challenge to regulators. Until Quebec’s decree is published, it’s still unclear whether unvaccinated Walmart customers who want to get their jab at the store’s pharmacy will be denied access due to, for example, the requirement for vaccine passports.

“We invite unvaccinated people to go to companies that do not require a vaccination passport to access the services they need,” Laura Fitzback, a spokeswoman for the health ministry, said Friday via email. “Unvaccinated people can also use delivery or pick-up services in the parking lot. Remember that it is still not too late to receive your first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.”

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Walmart will “take the time to thoroughly review the government’s upcoming official order in more detail,” Adam Grachnik, the company’s Canadian head of corporate affairs, said Friday via email. “Ensuring a secure customer experience remains a top priority.”

Confusion also surrounds access to operations such as Canadian Tires vehicle services, which are typically adjacent to the company’s stores. The Canadian Tire did not immediately respond Friday to an email requesting comment on the new vaccine passport requirement.

“There is a lot of ambiguity that needs to be clarified,” Michel Rochette, chairman of the Retail Council of Canada’s office in Quebec, said in an interview. His group represents about 15,000 store operators in the province.

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Lowe’s Canada, which owns the Rona and Réno-Dépôt hardware chains, intends to “follow public health regulations and will adjust business practices accordingly to provide a safe shopping experience for all our customers,” an unidentified spokesman said Friday via email. “Our home delivery services, car pickup and pickup cabinets are options that remain available to all of our customers.”

Bookseller Groupe Renaud-Bray on Friday blew up the new measure, calling it “unfair” and “punitive” and urging Quebec to reverse course. Renaud-Bray, which operates several stores of more than 1,500 square meters, also warned that it may be necessary to reduce opening hours due to the new requirement.

“The government has misjudged the effects of this policy,” President Blaise Renaud said in a statement.

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Quebec retailers are already operating at half of their normal capacity due to government restrictions announced last month.

Like most other industries, the retail trade is struggling with an acute shortage of employees. As many as 25,000 retail jobs were vacant in the province in September, according to Statistics Canada.

To make matters worse, absenteeism is on the rise as the Omicron variant emerges. At least 20 percent of the staff at some retailers in Quebec reported getting sick at various times during the holiday period, Rochette said.

“Asking retailers to check the vaccine passport may not work out much, but it’s a pretty big deal under a huge labor shortage,” Rochette said. The new measure “will create lineups that did not exist before. Even vaccinated customers could get angry. We do not want to see quarrels as a result of this.”

Security “is our biggest concern,” Côté added. “We have seen recent examples in the media of unvaccinated people behaving aggressively. That is the concern I hear most from our members. Retailers have to enforce the rules on behalf of the government, but sometimes people do not respond very well.”

ftomesco@postmedia.com

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