Malta’s response to COVID-19 will take a new turn next week, with establishments set to be allowed to loosen some restrictions so long as they restrict entry to vaccinated staff and clients.
Already deployed by a number of European countries, it’s certainly a controversial strategy, but Philip Fenech, deputy president of the Chamber of SMEs, insists it’s the right move.
“The government’s current bidirectional approach of slowly opening up layer by layer is the only strategy that has given us concrete results so far,” Fenech told Lovin Malta. “When we opened up quickly last summer because we were all concerned about the economy, the science put us back in reverse and we don’t want to go back to that scenario.”
“Whether we like or not, the vaccine works. Vaccine certificates are already obligatory for travel, standing events and concerts, while weddings which restrict entry to vaccinated guests can benefit from fewer restrictions.”
“Now we’re going to broaden it to establishments and it’s up to them whether to pick it up or not.”
As of Saturday 9th October, restaurants, bars, snack bars, każini and nightclubs can start restricting access to vaccinated clients.
These establishments must apply for certification with the MTA, as approved by the health authorities, who will check whether all their staff have been vaccinated and subject them to random inspections.
Those who gain certification will be able to stay open until 3am (up from 2am), serve tables of up to eight people (up from six), keep their tables 1.5m apart from each other (down from 2m), play music up to 80dbs (up from 70dbs), and serve drinks at the bar through Perspex dividers.
While clients will still be unable to sit down or congregate at the bar, bartenders will no longer be obliged to carry out table service for drinks, alleviating the pressure on them and allowing some establishments to make do with fewer waiting staff at a time of labour shortage in the industry.
Fenech had proposed easing these exact four restrictions last month, although he didn’t state it should be limited to establishments that restrict access to vaccinated people.
There has already been a backlash to these new rules, with the Association of Catering Establishments (ACE) stating that an internal survey among its members found that around 90% of operators are unwilling to restrict access to vaccinated people.
Renowned chef and restaurateur Sean Gravina said he isn’t surprised by the survey’s findings and urged the health authorities to involve all catering stakeholders when taking decisions on the industry.
“We need to work together hand in hand to keep a balance between health and economy,” he said. “The catering industry plays a massive part of our economy, and more importantly is an outing for locals and foreigners.”
“Don’t take it for granted, take care of it and stop pushing it around and taking decisions that add stress to our operations. It’s hard enough as it is with the lack of staff and the massive losses incurred throughout these years.”
Some restaurants have publicly pledged not to restrict access to vaccinated people, with Talbot and Bons warning such a decision would be discriminatory.
Yet Fenech said some establishments, particularly larger bars and restaurants and nightclubs, have more to gain from adopting these new rules than others.
“Every business has its own model; it’s in the interest of large bars, restaurants and nightclubs to extend their closing time by an hour, have less staff as a result of no table service, more capacity as a result of more tables, and a closer volume of music to what they’re used to.”
“If you’re a small establishment which doesn’t have room for many more tables, which closes before 3am, and which doesn’t have ample bar space for clients, then it won’t make a difference.”
“However, those establishments who had a lot to gain felt these rules are extremely important as it will improve their cost base and profitability at a time when they still have restricted capacity.”
Fenech dismissed concerns that the new rules will amount to discrimination against unvaccinated people, arguing that it would be discriminatory to expect unvaccinated people to enjoy the same conditions as vaccinated ones.
“If vaccination status doesn’t make a difference in terms of restrictions, then people will start asking why they even got vaccinated in the first place.”
He said he’s looking at the bigger picture, with tourism picking up steam significantly in recent weeks and the possibility of Malta marketing itself as a weekend break destination in the winter months, to compensate for the lack of event and conference tourism.
“We’ve earned a reputation as a safe destination and it looks like September was a better tourism month than August, which is usually our peak month. We’re still a far cry from the 2.7 million tourists who visited Malta in 2019, but with 920,000 tourists estimated this year, it will definitely be a way better year than 2020.”
“While everyone would like to see all the restrictions eliminated, we understand that the ECDC has warned EU countries to be on their guard this winter in case the COVID-19 situation worsens.”
“Let’s be cautious; we’re in the final stretch now and we don’t want to spoil it with the COVID-19 scenario regressing again. We’re almost there, we have something to build on now, and we shouldn’t ruin it.”
Do you agree with these new vaccination rules for establishments?