Small businesses face threats, backlash as vaccine passports take effect

With the introduction of every new pandemic measure, The Hearty Hooligan restaurant in Hamilton has faced fake one-star reviews, online harassment, and disruptions at their location.

The situation is bad enough that head chef Matthew Miles installed a panic button at their counter, and practices dealing with unruly customers with his staff using role plays.

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Now that proof of vaccination has become mandatory for non-essential activities in many provinces, businesses like Miles' say they're bracing for another wave of threatening calls and online harassment.

While fake reviews haven't affected The Hearty Hooligan too heavily thanks to their existing community support, Miles says other less-established businesses could be less prepared to weather the storm.

"I can definitely see how it would be challenging, not only from a business standpoint, but also from a mental health standpoint," said Miles.

"Pouring your life into something, only to watch people tear it down over something you have no control over must be immensely frustrating."

In Calgary, the owner of clothing and lifestyle store Madame Premier said she received threatening calls that addressed her by name after choosing to enforce proof of vaccination at her business.

Alberta's vaccine verification system does not include retail outlets, but Sarah Elder-Chamanara chose to implement it anyway to keep her and her two young children safe from COVID-19.

She says she's been flooded with dozens of bad reviews on Google and messages on her store's Instagram since then.

"I've countered that by letting some people know so they can post positive reviews to counter the negative ones," said Elder-Chamanara.

"But I don't want to have to do that, that's not what I should be doing with my time as a small-business owner frankly — it takes away from my business."

Restaurants Canada, an industry association, says Alberta businesses likely face an increased risk of harassment because Alberta's vaccine passport lets businesses decide whether or not to require vaccination.

"Having a program where the onus is put on a restaurant to make that decision creates a significant challenge," said Restaurants Canada President and CEO Todd Barclay.

"One restaurant beside another one could have an entirely different set of rules. In my mind, that's not the way to run these programs, the government has to make the decisions about what they think should happen."

He called on companies like Yelp and Google to do more to support businesses that are the target of hateful reviews.

Yelp said it has rolled out a feature that allows restaurants to indicate that they require proof of vaccination or have fully vaccinated staff. It says these businesses are automatically monitored for evidence of "review-bombing," where people flood the business with fake bad reviews.

"We place unusual activity alerts on a Yelp page when we uncover an influx of activity in response to a business gaining public attention, caused by people coming to Yelp to express their views on an issue instead of describing their actual interaction with a business," said a Yelp spokesperson.

"It’s our policy that all reviews on Yelp must be based on a first-hand consumer experience with the business."

The company said it has placed 190 unusual activity alerts and removed 8,000 comments on its platform since January 2021.

In the meantime, business owners like Elder-Chamanara say they're trying to delete fake reviews and keep themselves feeling safe at work.

These days, she keeps the front door of her store locked, and only opens it for each person trying to come into the store.

"It's not something I'm proud of it," said Elder-Chamanara, but she said it's just another thing she has to do to feel safe, especially as a woman working alone at her store.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2021.

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