Canadian Provincial Leader Wants to Pause Truckers’ COVID Vaccine Mandate but Federal Government Won’t Back Down.
The premier of Alberta called on the federal government to pause a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers that companies say will disrupt the supply chain and fuel inflation. The mandate, imposed by Ottawa to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, has cost Canadian trucking companies about 10% of their international drivers, six top executives said. They said they are hiking wages to lure new operators during the worst labor shortage they have experienced.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, at a news conference in Calgary, urged the government to extend an exemption that had been in place for truckers since the start of the pandemic. Kenney made his request on the same day the United States confirmed its own vaccine border mandate for truckers would start on January 22. Canada’s has been in place since January 15.
“Common sense tells us that we are at the peak of supply chain constraints across North America, around the world, huge inflation,” Kenney said. This is not the moment “to lose potentially thousands of truckers on our roads, bringing groceries up from the US and who knows maybe (COVID) rapid test kits as well,” he said.
The federal government says it will not back down on its vaccination rule for cross-border truckers despite entrenched opposition from some drivers and groups claiming to represent their interests.
In a joint media statement released January 25th, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough and Stephen Laskowski, the president of the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), said COVID-19 vaccines are the “most effective tool to reduce the risk of COVID-19” and protect public health.
“Our plan is to defeat COVID and end the pandemic as quickly as possible. What we’re doing right now is for the protection of truck drivers but also for the protection of our supply chains and our economy,” Alghabra said. “The best way to deal with COVID is through vaccination.”
As many as 32,000, or 20%, of the 160,000 Canadian and American cross-border truck drivers may be taken off the roads by the mandate, the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) estimates. The industry was short some 18,000 drivers even before the mandate, CTA said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has resisted industry pressure to delay the mandate since it was first announced in November. Trudeau defended the mandate, saying Canada was “aligned” with the United States, its largest trading partner. As of January 20, Canada’s transport ministry said the measure was not negatively affecting the supply of goods, and cross-border truck traffic had not varied significantly.
Within the next two weeks, consumers will see “there’s not as many choices on the shelves,” said Dan Einwechter, chairman and chief executive officer of Challenger Motor Freight Inc in Cambridge, Ontario. “Eventually the prices will be passed on from the sellers of those products, because we’re passing on our increases to them,” he said.
More than two-thirds of the C$650 billion ($521 billion) in goods traded annually between Canada and the United States travels on roads. Rob Penner, president and CEO of Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Bison Transport, said from Jan. 1 it raised the base rate for cross-border drivers by almost 20% but failed to gain any. “There’s more freight than there is people right now.” Fresh foods are particularly sensitive to freight problems because they expire rapidly, though all imports from the United States could be affected, trucking managers said.
Ontario to Begin Easing COVID-19 Restrictions on Jan. 31, With Plan to Lift Most Measures by Mid-March
Ontario will begin easing COVID-19 public health restrictions at the end of January, the government said Thursday, with a plan to lift most remaining measures by mid-March.
Starting Jan. 31, a host of indoor settings will be able to reopen to the public with 50% capacity limits, including:
- Restaurants, bars and other food establishments without dancing.
- Retailers, including shopping malls.
- Gyms and non-spectator areas of sports facilities.
- Movie theatres.
- Meeting and event spaces.
- Museums, galleries, aquariums, zoos and similar attractions.
- Casinos, bingo halls and other gaming establishments.
- Religious services, rites and ceremonies.
- Spectator areas of things like arenas and concert venues will also be open at 50% capacity or up to 500 people, whichever is less, the government said in a news release.
Enhanced proof of vaccination and masking requirements will remain in place. Moreover, indoor social gatherings of up to 10 people and outdoors gatherings of up to 25 will be permitted.
Then on Feb. 21, social gathering limits will increase to 25 for indoors and 100 people outdoors. Other planned changes include:
- Removing capacity limits on all indoor spaces where proof of vaccination is required.
- Allowing spectator capacity of up to 50% at sports, concert and other similar venues.
- Limiting capacity in most other indoor spaces where proof of vaccination is not required to the number of people who can maintain a physical distance of two metres.
- Increasing indoor capacity limits to 25% for remaining “high-risk settings” where proof of vaccination is required, such as nightclubs, wedding receptions in event spaces with dancing, as well as bathhouses and sex clubs.
Finally on March 14, according to the government, all capacity limits on indoor spaces will be lifted. Proof of vaccination and masking requirements will continue to remain in place where they already exist. All capacity limits will also be lifted for religious services, rites and ceremonies, and social gatherings of up to 50 people indoors will be permitted, with no limit for outdoors.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the planned changes at a morning news conference on January 20. He was joined by Health Minister Christine Elliott and Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health. Ford stressed that the timeline could change based on current COVID-19 trends and data in the province. “We’re taking a cautious approach,” Ford said, before adding he’s “confident” this reopening plan will work and that “the worst is behind us” in terms of new COVID-19 cases.
Quebec Announces Plan to Reopen Restaurants, Cinemas in Coming Weeks
The Quebec government announced a loosening of several restrictions, as hospitalizations slowly begin to come down from all-time pandemic highs.
Restaurants will once again be allowed to reopen at half capacity as of Monday, Jan. 31. Up to four people from four different addresses or a maximum of two family bubbles will be allowed to share a table. However, restaurants will have to stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m. and will have to close at midnight.
The same numbers will apply to indoor private gatherings, which will be allowed as of next Monday, Jan. 31 after being banned since New Year’s Eve, when the government introduced sudden, sweeping restrictions in an effort to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.
During the news conference, the premier said hospitalizations in the province were slowly going down, and there are reasons to believe they will continue to do so in the coming days. “The idea is to go gradually,” Legault said when describing the loosened restrictions.
Gyms and bars will still have to wait. No date for reopening them has been put forward, with officials saying the situation in the province’s hospitals is still too critical.
The Quebec government also did not provide a timeline for when the vaccine passport will be expanded to require three doses. The premier has said in the past it would happen only once everyone has had the opportunity to get their third dose. Currently, all adults are eligible.
The passport is currently required to access non-essential services such as restaurants and cinemas, in addition to larger retailers and the province’s government-run liquor store, the SAQ. It is not required for grocery stores or pharmacies.
Enforcing New Vaccine Mandate Frustrates Some Quebec Retailers
Quebecers headed to IKEA, Wal-Mart, Costco, Canadian Tire and other big retail stores now have to show proof of vaccination and government-issued ID at the door. The new measure, introduced on January 24, effectively limits people who haven’t received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to purchasing only essential goods — and it’s already frustrating those who have to enforce it.
“There are several reasons we’re disappointed,” said Patrick Delisle, head of marketing for Quebec hardware chain Canac. “First of all, we would’ve liked to be treated as an essential service — we’ve been essential since the beginning of the pandemic.”
The ministerial decree applies to stores with a surface area of 1,500 square metres or more, with the exception of grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations. Health Minister Christian Dubé says the expanded vaccine mandate is meant to encourage more people to get vaccinated.
Delisle says retail stores are bearing the brunt of provincial policy. “We’re not going to ask someone who’s dealing with water damage [in their home] if they’re vaccinated or not,” he said. “It’s really frustrating to have to manage clients living situations like that … it’s not our job.”
High costs, unfair competition, angry customers
On top of customer service challenges, businesses say they’re being dealt a significant financial burden. Canac says it will cost around $100,000 a week to enforce the measure in its 31 stores across Quebec.
For Simon Gagnon, owner of a Sports Experts franchise in Sherbrooke, Quebec’s labour shortage was already making it tough to find staff. Now he says he faces the “colossal challenge” of hiring security guards and employees to scan vaccine passports and he fears he may lose some of his customers. “What scares us is that instead of lining up, people will go shop somewhere else,” he said, adding that he feels the province is creating unfair competition between larger retailers and smaller stores that don’t have to enforce the new rules.
Delisle says Canac has dealt with more angry clients in the weeks leading up to the new vaccine mandate than it has throughout the entire pandemic. “We’re just the messenger … it’s not us who decided to do it,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of messages from people on social media pouring their hearts out — to put it politely.”
Some people who work in construction had hoped for an exemption that would have allowed unvaccinated workers to pick up building supplies but the government refused. Quebec’s construction association asked its members to respect the new measure. It said the 10% of employees who aren’t vaccinated could look at alternatives such as having items delivered to a work site or visiting a smaller store.
There is one notable exception in the ministerial decree that was issued on the night of January 23: people who aren’t fully vaccinated can visit pharmacies inside bigger stores that fall under the new rules. To do so, they’ll have to be accompanied by an employee on their way in and out.
Quebec’s Retail Council says its members had to scramble to move around schedules and to put staff their front doors for the morning of January 24. The council is asking customers to be patient as businesses adjust to the new requirements. It says it hopes the measure is temporary and that the government will give retailers a timeline for when it could be phased out.