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Ontario-wide website aiming to help local businesses share COVID policies goes offline after facing online attacks

The website was taken down after receiving pushback from a small group of malicious reviewers
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(stock photo)

A website aiming to help Ontarians make an informed decision on where they feel safe to visit has been forced to shut down -- less than a week after its conception.

The biggest reason for going offline was to take the bullseye off of local businesses being targeted by a small vocal minority, who seemed to be dedicated to leaving malicious reviews and making fake bookings at restaurants featured on the Safe-to-Do website.

That's according to the creator behind the website, who said in a statement online that they too have received a number of "increasingly personal, directed, and hateful" messages, including one that was reported to police.

Originally, the Safe-to-Do website was created following the news that the provincial government will be stepping away from the prospect of a vaccine passport. The volunteer-run initiative aimed to give Ontario businesses the opportunity to provide some transparency for shoppers; providing a space for business owners to share information and make announcements about staff vaccination status, health and safety protocols and vaccination policies.

A number of regional businesses were featured on the website, including Kitchener's Counterpoint Brewing. Owner Graeme Kobayashi said he’s received a mix of both “positive and negative interactions” through social media since posting on the website.

“We chose to make an announcement through the website to say we’re vaccinated, and also we’re following the general COVID guidelines,” said Kobayashi. “We’re just being as safe as possible. We have no intention of screening our customers for vaccine paperwork, vaccine passports or anything like that – and we’re not turning anyone down if they are not vaccinated.”

The brewery owner said that he feels part of the issue could be that the website’s intention needs to be made cleared in stating that it’s not just for businesses with vaccination or screening policies for customers, but also for those who want to make their own protocols more clear.

Kobayashi said he had an open discussion with his small team at Counterpoint Brewing in Kitchener about what sharing that information means for customers. Posting the team’s vaccination status with their consent, Kobayashi said he didn’t feel that sharing the information was “particularly important”, though he understands that it could be helpful for customers concerned about their health.

“We felt they may feel more comfortable attending our taproom, our patio and interacting with our business if they knew that we were taking this seriously as well as protecting ourselves and our families.”

When asked if he felt that more businesses in the region should be disclosing their vaccination status and policies, Kobayashi insisted that decision is really dependent on the comfort level of the individual business and its staff. While the province may have chosen to not implement a “vaccine passport”, Kobayashi said business owners have flexibility to make the decision they’re most comfortable with when it comes to their own policy.

“I think overall it’s been quite frustrating for local businesses due to financial losses, opening and closing (…) and of course new signage during each stage of the pandemic,” said Kobayashi. “In this case, each individual making their mind up on this isn’t a bad thing.”

The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Orchestra has also posted their own policies on the same website, indicating that visitors must follow local public health guidelines, and all players in the orchestra must be fully vaccinated. Speaking to the decision, Chairperson Elizabeth Newman said the choice to require vaccination of orchestra members is “important to stem the tide of COVID”, as she notes that many of the musicians involved may have their own various health conditions that they choose to keep to themselves.

“… to have a safe and healthy working environment is important – not only for their physical but their mental wellbeing.” said Newman. “That’s why we’ve come up with this policy and approach.”

Newman argued that this sort of policy and vaccination status disclosure should be required depending on the level of “interpersonal action or interaction” of an establishment – as she said that places like hospitals, hotels, restaurants and retirement living spaces should be fully vaccinated and safe.

“I would like to think the government would take a more leading role in this but they haven’t; they’ve sort of left it business-by-business,” said Newman. “Since health is more of a provincial measure than federal, I think it falls on the provincial government to take a leading role in this.”

Since announcing the chamber orchestra’s policy, Newman said she hasn’t received any objections or opinions from the orchestra or its community, noting that she’s certain there’s a wide array of opinions, though “they haven’t chosen to share them at this point.”

With files from Luke Schulz and Aastha Shetty

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