Concern about death threats and harassment ramps up as bar and restaurant owners prepare to turn anti-vaxxers away at the door

After months of death threats and angry confrontations with anti-vaxxers, Earlscourt BBQ owner Jason Rees isn’t particularly hopeful a COVID-19 vaccine passport will cool things down.

“I’ve got a bad feeling I’m going to have to kick someone’s ass,” said Rees.

The Ontario government is expected to announce a passport system this week that will make a wide variety of non-essential activities off limits to people who haven’t been vaccinated against COVID. Some bar and restaurant owners say that could again put their staff in the crosshairs of a small but vocal group of protesters who have already been berating and threatening them over mask-wearing mandates.

That comes on top of the already catastrophic economic consequences of dealing with COVID lockdowns, which have hammered the restaurant industry. While the average small business has accumulated almost $170,000 in debt during the pandemic, businesses in the hospitality sector have racked up almost double that, with an average debt load clocking in at $333,174, according to a study from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business being released Tuesday.

  • “All we did was post on Instagram that our staff was all vaccinated, and we started getting death threats and zero-star reviews. They’re a terrorist group,” said Rees of antimask and anti-vaccine protesters.

That’s a familiar tale to Jacob Wharton-Shukster, owner of Parkdale’s Le Phénix restaurant. When he instituted a mandatory vaccination policy for customers and staff earlier this summer, his inbox was inundated with furious emails, and he started getting bad online reviews.

  • “I got called Gestapo. I got told, ‘What did we fight the Civil War for?’ One person said, ‘It’s like First Nations kids getting sent to residential school.’ Someone else said, ‘It’s just like Blacks being asked to sit at the back of the bus.’ I mean, come on, really?” said Wharton-Shukster.

Wharton-Shukster is hopeful that the vaccine passport might actually reduce the potential for conflict, by putting all businesses in the same boat. Still, until the official details are released, he’s not taking anything for granted.

  • “I just hope that they don’t put the onus on businesses and restaurants to make their own policies. If you say, ‘Here’s the vaccine status, now make your own policy,’ that’s no better than we are right now,” said Wharton-Shukster. “Top down is the only way to go.”

Restaurateur Jen Agg, who has faced angry protests at some of her establishments, including Bar Vendetta, says it’s about time the Ontario government institutes a vaccine passport.

  • “Vaccine passports take the onus off individuals and businesses to protect public health. A mandate means everyone has to do it and it is obviously in all our best interests,” said Agg in a text to the Star. “Allowing a loud, misinformed minority to hold the rest of us hostage with their tantrums at our businesses (and airports and at political events) is an appalling abdication of leadership. I’m glad to hear it sounds like the provincial government is finally going to do the right thing.”

If the vaccine passport helps avert another lockdown, it will be worth it, says James Rilett, Central Canada director for Restaurants Canada.

  • “Most of our members aren’t thrilled with a vaccine passport, but if it keeps another lockdown away, that’s OK,” said Rilett, who had harsh words for protesters targeting struggling restaurants.
  • “It takes a special kind of bully to threaten and harass a restaurant server who’s just trying to do their job,” said Rilett.