Busy restaurant

Malta’s restaurants and bars are divided around the Government’s offer to lift a significant number of restrictions to establishments willing to accept only guests who are vaccinated against COVID.

Announced on Tuesday by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Health Chris Fearne, the new rule provides a number of relaxations, including the allowing of shorter distances between tables, a larger number of people per table, and in the case of bars, the resumption of bar service, for all those businesses accepting only vaccinated people.

Establishments may apply to benefit from the relaxed protocols as of Wednesday, while all staff must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to benefit.

Some notable feedback received, was that actually, expanding capacity would not be helpful.

For example, in the case of Jonathan Brincat, founder, co-owner and head chef of popular Valletta eatery Noni, the rule “doesn’t matter,” because his establishment has chosen to maintain its current capacity limit, to foster quality.

He clarifies that unlike in the case of some other establishments, this was not because of staff shortages, but because at his Michelin-starred outlet, they find it important to give customers enough space “to be comfortable.”

For larger eateries, maybe it would be worth taking advantage of the new protocols, he suggests, but for his smaller restaurant, which believes in “quality over quantity,” they’re content to remain at their current levels.

This was in line with the view presented by Stanjata owner and head chef Adrian Sammut, who explains that while removing some of the restrictions and being able to accommodate more people might sound tempting, his location will not be taking advantage.

In the case of his establishment, seating is almost the same as it was pre-COVID, because it renovated to expand its capacity just prior to the restrictions, meaning COVID hit, it had practically the same capacity as it had prior to renovation.

Low staffing levels are also a problem for taking advantage of the protocol, he says, as “more seating means more staff”.

On a broader level, he adds that he doesn’t think the measure “is necessary,” considering that 90 per cent of people have been vaccinated anyway.

This is a view also expressed by a leading stakeholder in Malta’s catering industry, who asks not to be named, but speaking to BusinessNow.mt asks: “The Government has already celebrated reaching herd immunity. If this is the case, then how does the measure make sense.”

On the other hand, a number of businesses expressed excitement about the prospect of lifting some of the restrictions.

Le Cinq’s restaurant manager, and an experienced and prominent figure in Malta’s hospitality industry, James Debono celebrated that with the new protocols, restaurants could go back to making money.

“It would be great if we could open for more customers, because as things stand many places are only open for the sake of it, and are losing money,” he says.

Regarding staff, and the possible additional strain on the already low levels, he proposed that the improved situation might make it easier for venues to attract more employees, by allowing them to offer more attractive remuneration packages.

For bars, the situation is even more promising. Under Minister Fearne’s announcement, venues accepting only vaccinated customers and with fully vaccinated staff will, like restaurants, be able to expand capacity, and more importantly, will be able to resume bar service.

For Shane O’Dwyer, co-owner and co-founder of the popular Wonderland group of bars, consisting of The Hatter, Down the Rabbit Hole and the Crafty Cat, this will be very welcome.

“This is going to make it much easier to operate, and we’re looking forward to opening up,” he comments, adding that with bar service, staffing demands would be dramatically reduced, allowing them to deal with more customers with the same number of employees.

Mr O’Dwyer has just returned from a trip to Austria, and reflects that there, a similar system is implemented very smoothly, to the benefit both of bar operators and customers.

Despite welcoming the move though, he believes it doesn’t “go far enough at all. The frustration is that that as nightclubs are practically opening, we’re still facing a lot of restrictions.”

This was in line with the view of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA), which has been campaigning for measures to be relaxed.

Responding to the announcement, the organisation stated that the way restrictions are now being “slightly eased”, leaves “much to be desired” and does not reflect the “realities” regarding safety and health that Malta is now experiencing.

Despite the success of the vaccine drive and the beginning of the rollout of booster jabs, which the MHRA says it welcomes, “piecemeal and contradictory decisions are however now leading to blurred conditions and major difficulties in managing enforcement by relevant authorities creating an unfair business playing field.”

As such, the organisation is calling on the Government to “recognise the success which we all have worked for and accordingly drastically reduce or completely remove the COVID 19 protocols especially for the hospitality sector, keeping in mind that we are living in an environment where practically everyone is vaccinated.”

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