Anti-vaxxers are using an Australian app to find shops, restaurants, hairdressers and other businesses that are supposedly open to unvaccinated adults and thus in breach of COVID restrictions.
The app, which The New Daily has chosen not to name, was released in 2017 as a competitor to Yelp, but a feature added in October allows people to label businesses under a category called “All Welcome”.
The app defines this new category as “businesses that have agreed to serve both vaccinated and unvaccinated customers”.
The owner of an organic supermarket listed under this category confirmed to TND that they “don’t discriminate” against unvaccinated customers, but said they weren’t aware of the app.
Despite this controversial feature, the app styles itself as “social lifestyle app that allows you and your friends to easily record and share businesses you like and use and leverage these collective recommendations to make each other’s lives easier”.
According to analytics provider AppTrace, downloads surged when this feature was added after a stagnant few years on the Apple App Store.
It’s also available on Android.
The app’s Sydney-based creator, who also works as a success and mindset coach, did not respond to requests for comment.
Athena Koelmeyer, managing director and principal of Workplace Law in Sydney, said while the app’s creators could justify the feature as being a simple statement of fact, there was no doubt that anti-vaxxers could use it to breach vaccine current restrictions.
“If you are a trooper who wants to be fined and prosecuted so that you can make your point, and go to court, and defend yourself, and attract some attention to your cause that way, then by all means, get on there and promote yourself as non-compliant,” Ms Koelmeyer told TND.
However police would nevertheless need to investigate further because users can make their own recommendations on the app without a business owner’s knowledge, she noted.
Businesses that have been listed under the new “All Welcome” category since lockdown ended in Sydney and Melbourne largely consist of hairdressers, restaurants, yoga studios and spiritual healers.
It mirrors a similar database of businesses that don’t enforce check-in or mask rules previously created by anti-lockdown group Reignite Democracy Australia.
RACGP president Dr Karen Price told TND that apps such as this were “very concerning”.
“COVID-safe measures are in place for good reason and that is to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a virus which can be deadly and have serious long-term health consequences for those who do survive,” Dr Price said.
“If you are deliberately flouting the rules you are not only putting yourself at risk, you are also risking the health and safety of your loved ones and entire community.”
The perils of enforcement
The app has exposed just how much of a grey area the enforcement of vaccine restrictions can be.
State governments, health authorities and police across New South Wales and Victoria gave TND mixed messages about who is responsible for making sure businesses follow the restrictions.
Nevertheless, a NSW Police spokesperson said the force was “aware of websites, applications and other means, which purport to allow people to deliberately contravene public health orders”.
On October 12, the Caledonian Hotel at Singleton, NSW, was fined for breaching the public health order after it displayed banners which read: “Jab or no jab, all welcome at the Cali, free Australia.”
Since then, the pub has been recommended by five users on the app, including the by app’s founder.
Meanwhile, business that are complying with restrictions have had issues with enforcement.
The road ahead for anti-vaxxers
Ms Koelmeyer said a business listing itself under the “All Welcome” category on the app could expose itself to potential legal action.
“If you want to run around promoting the fact that you are not compliant with public health orders, then what are you going to do when inevitably somebody comes and says to you, ‘Well, you didn’t do what you were supposed to do to ensure my safety, and now I’m sick, or my grandma died’?” she said.
In Victoria, anti-vaxxers could be locked out of cafes, restaurants and non-essential retail until 2023, however in NSW these restrictions are much more temporary.
When NSW reaches 95 per cent double-dose vaccine coverage, or by December 15 at the latest, unvaccinated people will be allowed into the kinds of businesses listed on the app.
In the meantime, health authorities are urging people to keep things COVID-safe.
“My message to people is simple,” Dr Price said.
“Do the right thing, get vaccinated as soon as you can to protect yourself and your loved ones, and support businesses that are doing the right thing with proper check-in procedures.”