When new rules requiring a vaccine certificate to enter restaurants came into force, some local eateries chose to close to in-house dining, subjecting them to praise and abuse by members of the public on either side of the ‘vaccine’ divide.
Other restaurants who remained open as normal and chose to follow the rules, also faced abuse and praise by members of the public. Now that the laws are being lifted, we take a look at those same restaurants to see whether they feel vindicated, or whether they would have done anything differently.
On Tuesday, the Government made a whiplash-inducing U-turn, with Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne announcing the phasing out of the controversial law requiring hospitality venues to demand proof of vaccination from all customers and client-facing staff.
Malta’s struggling restaurants let out a collective sigh of relief – but aside from relief, many also feel frustration and anger at once again being put through the ringer by restrictions that threatened to decimate them.
Just before Christmas, Minister Fearne announced that as from 17th January, visitors to bars, restaurants, gyms, pools, sporting events and cinemas will require valid vaccine certificates for entry.
He also announced that from the same date, the certificate will be considered expired once three months from the second dose (or single Johnson and Jonson) have passed or nine months from the booster dose.
In effect for barely over a week by the time its rolling back was announced, the rule provoked derision, anger and frustration in quarters of society from the Nationalist Party to stakeholders in the industry.
A large number of hospitality establishments opposed the rules with varying ferocity – with some making their thoughts heard and others closing entirely in protest.
According to a survey by the Association of Catering Establishments, more than one in 10 (14 per cent) venues completely closed pending a change.
Anett Racz, along with her partner, runs popular Pizza Workshop by Figaru. When the rules came into effect last week, the restaurant closed its doors – so as to not discriminate against valued clients.
She tells BusinessNow.mt: “We are a small, family-run restaurant. I am the owner, and I serve clients myself – who I love, and consider family.”
She opened the restaurant in the middle of the pandemic, after another project folded, and reflects that the “incredible support” of the clients at the new outlook has been what’s kept her and her business going.
As such, when faced with the spectre of requiring vaccine certificates from clients, she balked.
“I don’t understand how we ended up like this. I’m not a policeman, how could I be expected to disrespect my customers by demanding their certificate… Without them, I don’t have a business anyway,” she said.
Asked to react to the Government’s u-turn, Ms Racz said she will be very happy to be able to reopen her doors, as the period of closure has been very tough on her business – which has eked out some subsistence by offering takeout services on four nights of the week.
The restaurant will not be reopening in the wake of the announcement, sticking to its guns and only opening its doors when anyone can enter, regardless of vaccination status.
Asked whether she thinks the pressure placed upon the authorities by rebelling restaurants such as her own helped push the Government into reconsidering the rule, Ms Racz says she can’t comment on whether her action influenced the move, saying instead: “I just did the best for my clients.”
It seems these likely these clients will return the sentiment, as the initial social media announcement detailing the closure was greeted by a flurry of supportive comments – with multiple stating they’d make a point of visiting when the restaurant reopened.
Anthony Scicluna is a director and co-owner of the beloved Café Jubilee Group of Companies. He has been a vocal critic of the measures since their inception.
He tells BusinessNow.mt that the sudden reversal lent weight to his gut feeling – either that those implementing and conceiving the measures have “no clue” what’s happening, and are introducing moves for the sake of it, or that hospitality businesses are being used as a tool for the Government’s drive to get everyone vaccinated.
This clearly backfired he says – animatedly, and the reversal, while welcome, shows just how badly planned the move was.
He says that his group had to make investments, including in new scanning devices, to comply with the rule – which now will only be used for a few weeks.
“Instead of giving us a helping hand, the authorities are using us,” he says, “we have to turn away customers regularly – even those vaccinated if they forget their certificate or are accompanied by those without one. We always get called names, and people are angry with us.”
Like Ms Racz, he takes issue with the fact that the impetus has been placed on individual establishments to enforce the rules, saying “we are on our own.”
Asked whether the authorities could regain his trust, he answer he doesn’t know, but states that the only way they could do so would be by introducing common sense measures, pointing to self-testing, for example.
“Everyone should have a self-help kit in their medicine cabinet, allowing them to test and isolate straightforwardly,” he suggests, acknowledging that while the measure might sound obvious – either the scientific evidence disagrees, or there is some other agenda preventing it from coming to fruition.
The current restrictions, he concludes, discriminate against both business and customers.
Saint Paul’s Bay pizzeria I due Sardi made headlines last week when it announced it was closing its doors in protest at the new rules.
It said at the time: “Keeping faith with our ideals of respect and free choice of individuals, and respectful of the laws in force, we decide to remain closed to the public, until the authorities repent, regarding the latest provisions on COVID-19.”
Speaking to BusinessNow.mt after the Government announced the rescinding of the rules, owner Fabrizio Longaretti states the restaurant will be happy to reopen its doors when the mandate is lifted.
Asked whether he feels vindicated by the U-turn, he says he does – partially – but that he’d still have preferred the measure was never implemented at all.
Providing his outlook for the future, Mr Longaretti comments that as a businessman he has to be optimistic, but pointed to the continued damage of other restrictions, like those related to travel: “We hope all restrictions will soon be lifted, including ones related to travel, as we need tourists,” he said.
Oswald Caruana is the owner and chef of La Sfoglia in Valletta.
He reflects that the decision to introduce the vaccine requirement in the first place felt “a bit rushed,” and costed his restaurant “quite a bit” of business during the winter period when the sector tends to suffer anyway.
The rules were “too harsh and too rushed,” he says, stating that the catering industry already has enough problems without them.
Luckily, in his case, the vast majority of his staff were already vaccinated, meaning the new rule did not force him to let anyone go.
Regarding the sudden change in tact from the authorities, he says: “I think they did the right thing to make a u-turn, it’s only fair enough and thank God. They’re trying to do their best and I’m happy they’ve withdrawn the move.”
“It was a fiasco – but not as bad as the one last year that meant that those of us with snack bars couldn’t serve alcohol – that was the worst I’ve ever seen,” he concludes.
I due Sardi
Package expected to bring 'significant changes' to the rules for many financial products and services
Changes to the existing Key Employee Initiative scheme were also announced
Six-tenant limit was introduced in 2014, update of rent law simply a way to enforce it