VANCOUVER -- While a debate is underway about how comfortable people feel about a policy asking them to leave contact information at eateries, one of B.C.’s privacy watchdogs is more concerned about the revelation health officials have been quietly using credit cards and loyalty programs to track people who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

The provincial health officer made the revelation Thursday when asked about some resistance to her direction for businesses to collect and store contact information for dine-in patrons at restaurants, bars and cafes for 30 days in case of an outbreak.

“What we have said is that is our advice…and we're not going to access that information unless it's absolutely necessary,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry. “We have in the past used many different things to connect with people in those types of settings. For example, we can get access to things like credit card information or people's loyalty card information from a grocery store when we've had outbreaks.”

That came as a surprise to the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

“That’s news to me, we haven’t heard of any incidents where people have been told that they’ve been contacted through grocery loyalty cards and I’m not sure to the degree that’s used in contact tracing and how they’re using it,” said Harsh Walia. “I would be very interested in hearing more about how that’s being used and what those specific standards were in place and what the guidelines are.”

Henry insists that privacy is a top priority for her.

“In public health our paramount concern, and you will have seen this from the information that I've provided over the last number of months, is maintaining people's personal confidentiality so that is a very important thing that we do all the time,” she said. “This is just another measure to try and improve our efficiency and being able to contact people and give them health information that might be of value to them and to their families.

When someone is confirmed to have COVID-19, health officials start “contact tracing,” asking the patient to give them a list of where they’ve been and who they’ve had close contact with to notify them of their possible exposure and ask them if they have any symptoms. In close work environments, like recent outbreaks at poultry plants, even asymptomatic people have been tested if they’ve been in close contact.

Walia doesn’t have any major issues with diners being asked to leave contact information during a pandemic since eating out is a luxury and not a fundamental right, provided the data is destroyed after the 30-day period Henry is asking for and that businesses don’t use it for promotional purposes.

But a former attorney general says the very notion demands scrutiny.

“We’re very well served by our provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, but what troubles me is the lack of debate around things,” said Suzanne Anton. “Every time a freedom is taken away, for instance your ability to be anonymous in a restaurant — it’s a minor freedom, I totally get that — but every time you give something away, you’ve given it away. Will that order be rescinded or will it still be there five years from now? We don’t know.”

The president of the B.C. Restaurant and Food Service Association says he’s heard concerns like Anton’s from others as well, but that he thinks it’s a minority of people.

“We’re in a pandemic, we’re in a situation here where we have to do extraordinary things for an extraordinary time that we’re in — I think the majority of people don’t have a problem with it,” said Ian Tostensen. “If you go out, I think any reasonable person would like to be notified if something went wrong and it’s not like this is going into a databank or some sort of social campaign to come back at you. It’ll be taken, it’ll be filed away and if there’s some sort of issue, then the restaurant can act on it.”

The province is also quietly testing contact tracing apps, while the prime minister announced today that he expects to make a recommendation for a nationwide app for use by all Canadians in the near future.

Restaurants and other eateries are already asking for contact information, which was was an idea that came from the BCRFA. Tostensen points out the formal request from Henry is only a few days old and while the BCRFA has developed a log template for eateries to use, they’ll be making more detailed suggestions about how to deal with the information soon.

“We’ve all got to change our patterns and make a few little sacrifices,” said Tostensen. “Maybe we do it against some of these things that we object to for the sake of the bigger picture here, which is the economy and jobs and safety.”