Small business advocates are angry MLSE helped Ontario develop its vaccine passport app, but the company says it didn’t get special treatment – Toronto Star

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment says the money it makes from games — and filling Scotiabank Arena with Leafs and Raptors fans — wasn’t a factor in it helping the Ontaro government with its new vaccine passport app.

By Josh RubinBusiness Reporter

Sat., Oct. 16, 20214 min. read

Article was updated 2 hrs ago

The new Ontario COVID-19 vaccine passport app comes with an assist from the company that owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors, Premier Doug Ford announced Friday.

The Verify Ontario app is part of a plan to help the province’s economy rebound from COVID-19 restrictions. But the involvement of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in developing the app raised concerns among critics who were already angered by the government’s move a week earlier to lift capacity limits for sports venues, while restaurants, bars and gyms are still restricted to 50 per cent.

At a news conference, Ford vehemently denied the province had done MLSE — controlled by BCE and Rogers Communications — a favour in exchange for assistance developing the app. MLSE also denied it had ulterior motives for helping with the app.

“I’ll tell you right now, absolutely not. That’s 100 per cent,” said Ford, adding that his “heart breaks” for beleaguered restaurant owners, but he doesn’t want to loosen COVID-19 restrictions too quickly.

“My heart breaks for them, but I’m going to do this right. There’s no way I’m going to rush this and all of a sudden in four weeks, we see numbers go up and we have to go backwards,” Ford said.

“This is just so disappointing,” said an emotional Celina Blanchard, owner of Lambretta Pizzeria, about the partnership and the continued lack of clarity on when she’ll be able to fill her restaurant.

“Unfortunately it raises questions. On the optics, it’s just not good,” said Ryan Mallough, Ontario regional director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

James Rilett, Central Canada vice-president at Restaurants Canada, worried that the partnership with MLSE shows the Ontario government is listening to big corporations, while small businesses are at best an afterthought.

“It’s obvious that large businesses have the ear of the premier and small businesses just don’t. It’s getting harder and harder not to be cynical,” said Rilett. “If a company helped develop the app without any benefit to them, that’s great, but the bottom line is that special preference was shown to big business.”

Ford argued that the move to open arenas and movie theatres to full capacity benefited more than just MLSE, which is owned by BCE and Rogers Communications.

“It’s not just about MLSE, by the way. It’s about the CFL. It’s about the small towns around Ontario that have small OHL teams, be it, you know, Sault Ste. Marie or London,” Ford said.

In an emailed statement, NDP leader Andrea Horwath said the partnership was reminiscent of the government’s decision to allow large retailers such as Walmart and Canadian Tire to remain open throughout the pandemic, while smaller retailers faced greater restrictions.

“Doug Ford has a track record of giving his buddies what they want at the expense of small businesses. Ford didn’t give mom and pop shops a fair shake when he kept them closed while he let big box stores sell anything, and once again he’s stacking the deck in favour of his buddies while keeping the little guys at a disadvantage,” Horwath said.

Sports industry sources estimate that having Scotiabank Arena filled with 20,000 fans could bring in more than $3 million per Leafs game in revenue from tickets, concessions and merchandise sales.

Humza Teherany, MLSE’s chief technology and digital officer, said money — and filling the arena for Leafs and Raptors games — wasn’t a factor.

“Absolutely not. I understand where the question comes from, but I can assure you there was absolutely no conversation when it comes to any of those things,” said Teherany.

The company, Teherany said, was just being a good corporate citizen when it agreed five weeks ago to help the province’s digital team refine the app, which at that point was in a preliminary beta stage.

“This technology should help everybody get to a better place. And that was our intent from an MLSE standpoint: to help the province, of which we are a part obviously, to get a good process, something that was simple, that was easy. And we lent our skill and experience to get it done in record time,” said Teherany.

MLSE has worked with various levels of government throughout the pandemic, Teherany said, including using Scotiabank Arena to prepare 600,000 meals for front-line workers and homeless Torontonians, and hosting a vaccine clinic that saw 27,000 people get their injections in a single day.

Teherany said the app means it will take just 10 to 15 seconds for business owners to scan a QR code and determine whether a customer can walk through their doors. By comparison, the existing system of looking at a PDF or printout of someone’s vaccine receipt averages anywhere from 45 seconds to a minute.

That, acknowledged Mallough, was a big improvement.

“Look, the app works very well. I was impressed with how easy it is to use and how fast it will be. That’s much better than the system we had,” said Mallough.

The app also uses open source code, Teherany stressed, meaning it could be used by other governments or companies to develop their own apps.

“If other provinces want to use it, they can use the code base to get an app in their province. They can do it anywhere in the world. That’s a civic opportunity to push other municipalities and regions forward as well,” said Teherany.

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