Following Health Minister Chris Fearne's announcement of updates to the COVID-19 mitigation measures coming in force on Monday 17th January, restaurateurs have expressed a mixture of joy, criticism, and simple exhaustion at the constantly shifting situation.

On Thursday, Minister Fearne put forward significant changes to the rules surrounding catering establishments, which will only be able to accept customers with a valid vaccine certificate as of next week. A valid COVID certificate is valid from two weeks after a person has had their booster shoot, except for a list of exceptions. 

With restaurants, bars and kazini only able to accept boosted individuals, the restrictions on distance between tables and the number of persons per table have been lifted. 

The update announced yesterday also exempts back-of-house staff from requiring a valid vaccine certificate, though this remains in place for staff coming into contact with customers. reached out to Chris Hammett, owner and chef patron of the popular Hammett's outlets - Hammett's Macina, Hammett's Gastro Bar and Hammett's Mestizo - and Sean Gravina, owner and chef patron of Crust Deli Bakery, to see how they reacted to the update. 

Chris Hammett struck a positive note, describing the lifting of the rule mandating that two metres are left between each table as “fantastic”.

He also welcomed the lifting of the limit on the number of persons who can be seated at each table at establishments with a capacity of under 300.

Restaurants licensed to host over 300 people are meanwhile limited to eight persons per table unless they are from the same household.

“This makes up for the shortfall of customers who have not been boosted yet,” he said.

Reacting to the lifting of the requirement that back-of-house staff have a valid vaccine certificate, he simply commented, “Good. That’s brings the situation in line with how it is for everyone else.”

However, he said that questions remain.

“Take bartenders. If people cannot stay at the bar, do they count as client-facing staff?” he asked.

Mr Hammett criticised mandatory vaccination for staff coming into contact with customers.

“I have someone who has been with me for nine years who cannot take the vaccine. We cantacted DIER (the Department for Industrial and Employment Relations), and they simply quoted us the law. Our options are limited: transfer to another department, give paid or unpaid leave, or terminate.”

He continued: “Is that any way to reward loyalty? We can’t find staff, and we’re making it extremely difficult for those staff who do remain to continue their work.”

Overall, Mr Hammett said the updated rules are positive, although certain details “are not thought through”, but made it clear that vaccination should not be mandatory for any staff in any case. 

"We should not have to ask staff to get vaccinated, or indeed, as is the case here, forcing them to," adding that the believes the only way forward is to have all restrictions lifted.

"We need to live with COVID," he said.

Mr Gravina was even less happy, explaining that the main problem facing restaurants is in relation to staff, not customers.

“I feel like they are playing with words,” he said, in reference to Minister Fearne’s vague comments on what should happen to staff who do not take the vaccine for any reason.

“If I have a waitress depending on her job to raise a baby, what the Minister is doing is telling me to fire her. He didn’t say it but that’s what he’s implying.”

He asked, “Is that democracy?”

Mr Gravina insisted on the publication of the science the health authorities are basing their decisions on.

“Show me the studies that prove that restaurants are hotspots for infection. Why are we different?”

He anticipated criticism for his comments, and admitted that he is “exhausted” by the situation.

“I hope someone else starts speaking publicly about the problems we’re facing, because I literally gave up. I have my own issues.”

“Just let us work in peace,” he implored.

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Written By

Robert Fenech

Robert is curious about the connections that make the world work, and takes a particular interest in the confluence of economy, environment and justice. He can also be found moonlighting as a butler for his big black cat.