No standing in clubs despite 86% vaccination, Fearne says ‘high-risk’

Nightclub and disco owners are in uproar after the latest relaxation of COVID-19 measures once again ignored their concerns, with standing events remaining off limits 'for the time being'

No standing patrons are allowed in nightclubs
No standing patrons are allowed in nightclubs

The latest relaxation of measures introduced to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 caused an uproar among nightclub and disco owners, who insist the health authorities are continuing to discriminate against them.

In a press conference on Thursday, health minister Chris Fearne and Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci announced that from 16 August, the capacity for outdoor seated events would increase from 200 to 300. Capacity would increase to 500 from 30 August. Attendees will need to be vaccinated, and masks and social distancing protocols will remain mandatory.

At the same briefing, Fearne announced that, for the time being, standing events remain off limits. A spokesperson for the minister told MaltaToday that stand-up events are not allowed yet as these would be of higher risk than sit-down events.

But nightclub and disco owners are claiming they are the victims of discrimination and that theirs is the only industry that has not benefited from any relaxation of measures as the vaccination rate in Malta continued to rise.

One club owner said he could not understand why their industry was not included in Thursday’s announcement.

“Like all the other sectors, we are running business and we too have suffered huge losses,” the owner told MaltaToday. “And yet, we have seen no assistance from the authorities and we continue to be targeted.”

He said that the decision to ban standing patrons was also effecting other activities, like feasts, weddings and concerts.

“Do you think anyone is thanking Mr Fearne for increasing seating capacity to 500 by the end of the month in the case of events like weddings?” he said. “Just how many wedding halls or other venues do you think there are that can comfortably accomodate up to 70 10-foot tables, placed a minimum of two metres apart? The authorities are not fooling anyone.”

Nightclubs had to change business model under COVID-19 restrictions
Nightclubs had to change business model under COVID-19 restrictions

No special treatment sought

Matthew Degiorgio, Managing Director of Gianpula Village, said he too was very disappointed that even with 86% of the population having been fully vaccinated, the authorities still decided to put off easing restrictions on standing events.

“We are not asking for any special treatment or for anything out of this world,” he said. “We are only asking to be allowed to let 100 fully-vaccinated people stand in our venues, possibly at adequately-spaced tall bar tables.”

Degiorgio said this was in line with what the Malta Arts Council itself had recommended when the turnaround figure of 75% for vaccination – then pushed to 85% - had first been floated.

“And yet, with over 86% of the population being fully-vaccinated, here we are again, being brushed off without any explanation or concern,” Degiorgio said. “Can anyone give me one reason, backed by science, as to why I cannot open my club for 100 fully-vaccinated, standing patrons?”

Degiorgio explained that discos and nightclubs were among the industries that found it the hardest to operate under the conditions imposed to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

While restaurants and bars, for example, had to downsize and limit the number of tables and covers, discos and clubs had to completely change the nature of their business, from standing patrons to seating around tables.

Health minister Chris Fearne and public health superintendent Charmaine Gauci
Health minister Chris Fearne and public health superintendent Charmaine Gauci

‘Gradual de-escalation’

This newspaper reached out to minister Fearne to ascertain why standing events remain off limits.

A spokesperson for the ministry said that a gradual de-escalation of measures has been ongoing since April 2021, with activities allowed in accordance with standards, where mitigation measures have allowed for places and services to re-open and such activities to take place.  

“Sit down events are being gradually increased in terms of capping of the number of people attending. Stand-up events are not allowed yet as these would be of higher risk than sit-down events,” the spokesperson said.

“In standing events, people engage in behaviours such as interacting with others from outside their own household, maintaining of physical distancing is not possible and mix with more people. The more an individual interacts with others, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread".

For stand up events, any positive case would have an impact on the quarantine of the rest of the group, the spokesperson said.

“Hence at this stage where we need to reduce the community transmission further as ongoing vaccination programme expands, slow release of measures is required to continue to control the situation and ensure the health system continues to support the needs of the population.”

A sacrificial lamb

Following Thursday’s announcement, the Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association (MEIA) expressed its disappointment that the industry was not given the go-ahead to resume standing events.

"Whereas we applaud the ongoing efforts and success of the health authorities to achieve a high rate of vaccination among the adult population, our sector remains the only industry that is suffering from sustained discrimination," the association said. 

"Not only is our industry the only industry that requires vaccine certification for both staff and clients for open-air seated events, but we are also the only industry that is being used as the sacrificial lamb of the pandemic."

MEIA said standing events, like seated events, come in various formats, ranging from small corporate events of 50 people to concerts hosting thousands, all of which can operate in different roll-out stages and with protocols that are similar to those of other industries and proven to be successful on an international level.

"The only standing events that seem to be ongoing in Malta are the illegal gatherings that remain uncontrolled, unsupervised, and unrestrained," the association said.