Health Minister Chris Fearne refused to give a straight answer when asked whether people are allowed to eat, drink and smoke outdoors.
Questioned on TVAM this morning, Fearne dodged the question by saying with a laugh that ideally people shouldn’t smoke or drink alcohol at all because it’s bad for your health.
His interviewer clarified that she was referring to people taking a glass of water at a picnic, but Fearne was having none of it.
“Alcohol and cigarettes aren’t good when there’s COVID-19 around or when it isn’t around,” he said. “You should take care of your health – you should exercise, you shouldn’t eat excessively… these things always apply even where’s COVID-19 naturally.”
“We understand that the more people gather together, the higher the chance of infection, particularly with the [UK] variant around. One of the challenges we’re facing is that everyone’s tired after a year. Everyone’s made sacrifices, but we appeal for this to continue for a few more weeks.”
Fearne then proceeded to praise Malta’s high vaccination rate, urge people to telework where possible, and avoid crowds of people, but didn’t answer the question.
Over the weekend, some police officers patrolled the countryside and fined picnickers who removed their masks to eat and drink.
A man told Lovin Malta that he and three friends were eating and drinking on a bench at Ġnien l-Għarusa tal-Mosta, socially distanced from other picnickers, when four police officers approached them and fined them for not wearing masks.
Malta made mask-wearing mandatory in all public places last October, with a few exceptions – such as during high-intensity physical activity, during official public speaking, and to take medication.
The legal notice also allows people to take off their masks when “seated at establishments where food and drink is served”, which if interpreted rigidly would mean that taking off one’s mask to eat at a picnic has been banned since October.
However, the authorities have permitted a degree of flexibility to the mask rules, with even Fearne confirming last October that people are allowed to temporarily remove their masks to smoke – even though the legal notice doesn’t specifically point it out as an exception.
Meanwhile, a Facebook user shared a message she received from LESA last November when she asked them point-blank whether people can remove their masks to eat or drink when in a public place that isn’t a restaurant, such as a picnic or a bench.
LESA responded that doing so is fine so long as you’re sitting down.
Several new measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 were announced last week, with Prime Minister Robert Abela pledging to beef up enforcement.
However, neither he, Chris Fearne, or Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci ever mentioned that mask rules have been changed to effectively ban picnics.
No public statement has been issued by the authorities since the press conference either and Lovin Malta has sent questions to the Health Ministry to clarify the situation.