Now restaurants have to deal with anti-vaxxers on top of everything else

OPINION: The pandemic has hit the restaurant industry hard. After confronting closures and uncertainty, they’re now confronting bozos trying to scare customers away
By Corey Mintz - Published on Aug 31, 2021
People protest at Toronto’s Adamson Barbecue, which was defying provincial lockdown orders, on November 25, 2020. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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It was not a huge surprise that rabid anti-vaxxers have weaponized Yelp and Google reviews to harass restaurants. For the past couple of months, writing nasty one-star reviews for businesses that require staff or guests to be vaccinated has been a popular and effective tactic aimed at economically damaging small businesses. After a year that all but destroyed the restaurant industry (and for many workers, the desire to stay in it), it has been heartbreaking to see owners and workers fend off an entirely preventable assault from this well-armed digital militia. 

To be fair, it is in part due to government intervention — plus resourceful owners and the support of diners — that restaurants still exist. Early in the pandemic, industry analysts were predicting that the impact of COVID-19 might put half our restaurants out of business permanently. Analysis from market-research firm NPD finds the loss closer to 8 per cent, roughly 5,000 of Canada’s 66,000 restaurants. However, about three-fifths of the closures have been independent restaurants (operations with fewer than three units). 

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We now have plenty of vaccine supply, but a certain segment of the population is unwilling to get the shot (a much smaller number of people are unable to). Absent rules from any level of government that would require public-health precautions, business owners have been left to twist in the wind — expected to implement and enforce their own safety policies at the cost of angering this deranged cohort. 

The Yelp problem is a platform issue. Unlike such social-media arenas as Facebook and Twitter, which thrive on hateful engagement, user trust has value to Yelp. No one goes to that platform just to form communities. So there’s no incentive to looking the other way. Yelp needs users to feel as if it’s a trustworthy source of information.

You don’t need a detective to conclude that material posted by user “Karen4Freedum,” who shares unanimously one-star reviews of random businesses all over North America, are probably illegitimate. If I can learn how to use spreadsheets to calculate household spending (use the equation =sum( and then highlight the cells you want to add up), Yelp can figure out how to autodelete harassment. And it did, after a lot of bad press.

Within a few weeks, Yelp released a public statement detailing how the company monitors and deletes what it calls “review bombing.” It also enabled restaurants to flag that all staff are vaccinated or that proof of vaccination is required for dining. Not a complete fix, but better than silence.

In an escalation from the online attacks, harassers have been gathering outside Toronto restaurants to chant, badger, and bang on metal bowls in an attempt to chase away customers. It’s not just any restaurants, but those owned by Jen Agg, a restaurateur who has not been requiring proof of vaccination. She’s not even operating indoor dining. 

In a video taken by Agg, the group of walking Youtube comments is seen hollering “no vaccine passports” in front of people trying to eat on the patio, as Toronto police officers (who were prioritized for vaccines and whose union is now opposing mandatory vaccines for its members) appear to stand idly by. One protestor holds a sign that reads “Arrest Trudeau” on one side and “Reinstate Msgr. Keenan” on the other. It’s unclear what Monsignor Owen Keenan, who resigned as the pastor of the Merciful Redeemer Parish in Mississauga following his insistence on the good done by residential schools, has to do with vaccine passports or patio dining or anything. But trying to divine reason from the unreasonable is a waste of time. The sign might as well have read, “Release the Snyder cut.”

Restaurants are merely the cannon fodder in this battle. As larger businesses, such as Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Mirvish Productions, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Toronto Blue Jays, announce vaccine policies to protect their guests, these radicals will find themselves with too many imagined enemies — targets with private security and a lot more clout with police — to picket. There will be legal challenges, no doubt. But they will be pointless.

Remember Adam Skelly, the owner of Adamson Barbecue, who insisted on challenging existing laws by operating indoor dining during a pandemic lockdown? Skelly made a lot of noise about opposing laws he saw as unjust. He even raised $337,622 for his legal defence through GoFundMe. But when he had his day in court, Skelly refused to answer any substantial questions. He was just a troll with a big mouth.

It will go the same for these bozos. Courts are unlikely to take the side of the few who are endangering the safety of the many.

Not that any of this will make these yahoos less dangerous, desperate, or harmful. And don’t forget that every business, from your local café to the national cinema chain, was left to deal with this on its own because our government provided no legal cover.

Agenda segment, June 9, 2021: Can restaurants survive Ontario's reopening?

For some time, France has required people to show a pass that proves they’ve been vaccinated or received a recent negative test result before entering a movie theatre, museum, or theme park. In August, this was extended to restaurants, shopping centres, hospitals, and long-distance trains, spurring protests.  

Last week, Ontario’s 34 regional medical officers asked for a vaccination-certificate system. Although sources initially indicated that cabinet planned to discuss the issue at a meeting on Tuesday, the premier's office told media Monday night that a planned announcement had been cancelled.

For years, we put up with the anti-vaxxers in our midst while they quietly brought back measles, mumps, and tuberculosis. Are we prepared to let this very vocal minority do the same with the much deadlier COVID-19? Every parent of a school-aged child under 12 is currently shaking in fear and rage as they prepare for their kids to return to a classroom that may contain someone from an unvaccinated household.

What are any of us supposed to do? I’m open to suggestions. We followed the rules. And it got us here — held hostage by a minority faction determined to place everyone else’s life at risk for their own freedom. We are left with nothing but our anger. What now?

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