‘Misguided fear’ sees shops turning elderly away because of COVID-19 risk

Law does not oblige shops to turn away vulnerable customers but some have refused entry to elderly clients • Onus of responsibility lies with individual not shop owners

Non-essential shops re-opened for business on Monday after the public health authorities lifted some restrictions but some outlets were unsure as to whether elderly and vulnerable customers should be allowed to enter
Non-essential shops re-opened for business on Monday after the public health authorities lifted some restrictions but some outlets were unsure as to whether elderly and vulnerable customers should be allowed to enter

Elderly people have been turned away from retail outlets that re-opened this week after COVID-19 restrictions on non-essential shops were partially lifted.

MaltaToday has received several reports of elderly people who were refused entry into establishments with salespeople informing them it was because of their vulnerability to COVID-19.

Abigail Mamo, CEO of the Chamber of SMEs, acknowledged that some shops were turning elderly or pregnant customers away because they feared being penalised if these clients were found inside.

However, she insisted there was nothing at law that penalised shops if an elderly or vulnerable person insisted on entering.

Chamber of SMEs CEO Abigail Mamo
Chamber of SMEs CEO Abigail Mamo

“The advice we are giving shop owners is to ensure that all clients wear face masks, use hand sanitisers and respect social distancing measures but it was not up to them to stop the elderly or vulnerable people as long as these obeyed safety instructions,” Mamo said.

She noted that the responsibility to stay safe was with the vulnerable individual.

A legal notice published early on during the pandemic classifies people aged 65 and over, and those with chronic medical conditions as vulnerable. Pregnant women are also classified as vulnerable.

The law orders them to stay inside and leave home only for essential errands, such as medical appointments and the purchase of food.

The law puts the onus on the individual to comply but carries no penalties.

However, this legal notice does not give shops the right to refuse customers based on their age or vulnerability.

“I was stopped because I have white hair and wrinkles but does the shop ask all women whether they are pregnant, or asthmatic, or suffer from a chronic condition? This is discrimination,” an elderly woman who was stopped from entering a Sliema clothes shop told MaltaToday.

Mamo said some shops were refusing customers out of “misguided fear”. She added that retail outlets were obliged to have the necessary safety requirements by limiting client numbers inside the establishment, provide hand sanitisers at entry and exit points and carry out regular cleaning.

“A shop has every right to refuse anyone who does not want to wear a mask or use hand sanitiser,” Mamo added.

‘Vulnerable should only go out for essentials’

Asked whether this behaviour by shops was legal, Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci avoided a direct reply, insisting that vulnerable people should only go out for essentials.

“We kept the number of infections low by protecting the vulnerable… Neighbours and relatives should help the elderly by doing their shopping to keep them safe,” she said, adding the elderly should not go on non-essential shopping trips.

Gauci insisted this was intended to protect the vulnerable from contracting the virus.

Since the start of the pandemic in March, Malta registered 486 cases of coronavirus. Five people have died, all elderly with underlying health conditions, and 413 have recovered. There are 68 active cases.

Malta started lifting some of the restrictions introduced over the past two months but the health authorities remain vigilant, given that 20% of recorded cases had no symptoms.

 

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