Reopening of eateries a mixed bag for restaurateurs

The government’s decision to reopen restaurants has been met with mixed reactions from within the industry


The government’s decision to reopen restaurants has been met with mixed reactions from within the industry, with some welcoming the chance to host patrons within their premises again and others lamenting that the tight safety measures which will have to be followed will make their operations economically unfeasible.

As from Friday, restrictions put in place in March which forced Malta’s restaurants to close their doors in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, will be lifted.

Once they carry out a self-assessment exercise to check if they have put in place all COVID-19 safety protocols, eateries can request that the Malta Tourism Authority inspect their premises.

Restaurants found to obeying all the rules will be issued with a compliance certificate, which, although not mandatory for opening, is meant to give customers peace of mind that the establishments concerned have implemented all precautions.

MTA CEO Johann Buttigieg said on Tuesday that, under the new protocols, restaurants with outdoor spaces will have to utilise such areas to accommodate customers, with only those which do not have any outside space being allowed to use their indoors area.

Moreover, diners must not exceed a maximum of six per table. For outdoor spaces, tables will have to be kept at a two-metre distance, with at least one metre between chairs. Tables indoors must be at a three-metre distance, and patrons are to be limited to one per four sq.m, with a minimum of two metres between chairs.

Speaking to BusinessToday, Robert Cassar, chef patron at Root 81 in Rabat, said he welcomed the safety measures – many of which were already in place as part of the strict health and safety regiment followed by his restaurant – and he was keen to reopen.

Alain James Grech, chef patron at The Chef’s Table
Alain James Grech, chef patron at The Chef’s Table

In the interest of safeguarding the health of its staff and clients, Root 81 had closed its doors in March, a few days before the government issued its mandatory directives.

Cassar acknowledged that it was not yet possible to predict whether business would be successful once the restaurant reopened on Friday, given the reduced number of patrons which he would be able to accommodate.

He emphasised, however, that restaurants had to give it their best shot and try to make things work.

“Personally, I thank God that we will reopen,” Cassar said.

“We will be opening and trying to adapt. We’ll have to see if it is viable or not over the period of a few months – but we have to try. I understand that for those with a small area it might not make sense to open. But we cannot know without trying. “

“We can either be positive, and open while abiding by all the protocols, or else stay home and suffer mentally,” Cassar highlighted.

“Those restaurants content with only offering deliveries can do so. But we need to give other restaurants the chance to operate as long as they obey the protocols.”

Noting that he had already informed the MTA that his restaurant is ready to be inspected, he said that he did not see the COVID-19 safety protocols as a hurdle.

“To me, it comes natural to adhere to these health and safety rules. For a restaurant of a certain standard, hygiene is always a top priority. We’ve always offered sanitisers to our clients, for instance.”

Robert Cassar, chef patron at Root 81
Robert Cassar, chef patron at Root 81

Confusion on rules concerning restaurants with outdoor areas

Cassar said, however, that he disagreed with the requirement that restaurants with an outdoor seating area do not utilise their indoor space.

“I don’t agree with this. If the government had given a restaurant a permit for both outdoor and indoor seating, why can’t they use both, as long as they abide by the health requirements? This is the only aspect that makes absolutely no sense.”

Alain James Grech, chef patron at the Buġibba restaurant The Chef’s Table – which has an outdoor space limited to a two-table capacity – shared Cassar’s views about the inadequacy of this requirement.

Since his eatery can only accommodate two tables outside, Grech said he had decided not to open his restaurant this week. Due to the rules, he won’t be able to use any of his indoor area – although, he pointed out, it appeared that there was still some confusion about this matter.

“I had prepared a new small hall inside to expand on our indoor area. But I was told that since I have outdoor space, I can’t use this,” Grech said.

“Some restaurant operators have said that a restaurant can choose whether to use its outdoor or indoor areas. But two representatives from the MTA told me that if you have outside space, you can’t use the inside area – so I’d rather not risk it,” he said.

“Monday was one of the best days of my life when I found out we could reopen. But, when I read the protocols on Tuesday, my heart sank. How can I open with just two covers?”

Grech said he would for the time being keep offering the delivery service which he had started as a response to having closed the restaurant’s doors.

“We’ll keep doing deliveries. However, the fact is that since we normally provide a fine dining experience, deliveries constitute only a small part of what our business used to be when we were open.”

He went on to lament that the whole process of reopening restaurant was done too hastily. “It was too rushed in my opinion... Therefore, I’ve decided to give it some time. Maybe the protocols will be relaxed somewhat, and then we might reopen.”

Aim to reopen achieved, next challenge is alleviating fear – MHRA boss

Malta Hotels and Restaurant Association president Tony Zahra told BusinessToday that, with the reopening of restaurants, one of the milestones in terms of returning to a form of normality had been reached.

“What’s important is that restaurants are reopening – we’ve achieved this goal.”

“The safety protocols are of course necessary to keep us safe from COVID-19,” he said, adding that the MHRA was in discussions with restaurants regarding some issues with the new measures. “There are a few points which can be improved upon. But the channels with the MTA are open for us to do this.”

He said that he preferred not to be specific about the main concerns until discussions were concluded.

The next goal to reach is to encourage people to eat out, he said.

“No doubt the big issue now is to convince people that project fear should not win. People ought to return to some normality. Those who prefer to stay home can of course do so, but they must consider if they are prepared to stay home for a long time,” Zahra said.

“People will start going out, and they will realise that they are going back home safely and not getting sick. Slowly, but surely, we’ll return to some normality. What’s life if you don’t live it? We’ve been turning life into sitting at home on the sofa doing nothing,” he added.

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