Tony Zahra

The organisation representing hotels and restaurants believes that the legal notice mandating the closure of bars until the end of February may be extended “for a few more weeks” as authorities wait for the vaccine rollout to have an effect.

The shutdown of bars has been in effect since the end of October and has been extended on a monthly basis, as the number of cases found every day has persistently remained at around the 100 to 200.

Speaking to BusinessNow.mt, Tony Zahra, president of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, said the matter is currently being discussed at the highest levels of Government, but expressed his belief that the Government’s preference to err on the side of caution means that it would be extending the closure until the number of daily COVID-19 infections goes down.

“We continue to discuss these matters with Government,” he said, stressing that “health comes first”.

He said that the authorities should do their utmost to give as much notice as possible to affected parties, after various complaints about the short notice given for previous closures and their extension.

However, he pointed out that “although we would love to know what the virus is going to do,” the situation remains an unclear one that makes it difficult to take decisions very much in advance.

The extension could necessitate further assistance given to affected establishments, with rent costs at the top of the agenda for many of them. Mr Zahra cautioned stakeholders against such expectations, saying that Government is limited in how much it can spend.

“Whilst we would like to have everybody given as much help as is possible, especially when it comes to rent that has been a significant challenge so far, we must realise that the Government has limits.”

“Sometimes you need to make a choice on where to give aid,” he continued, “and while we are continuously calling on Government to provide more assistance, the approach so far to make sure the funds available are spread out to all those affected has been a successful one.”

The Government’s foremost assistance has been the wage supplement, which has allowed struggling businesses to keep employees on their books and ready for an eventual recovery.

Mr Zahra said there is a high level agreement that the scheme would extend to the end of June, at which point the situation would be re-appraised depending on what happens in the real economy.

“This three-month extension is what I read as being cautious,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Robert Abela’s comments on Thursday. “Are we getting tourists? Is that part of the economy starting to come alive again, or will it be like we are now? We cannot look beyond three months ahead.”

Asked whether Government has been willing to listen to his lobby’s concerns, Mr Zahra said that the MHRA has been in talks with the Government since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Government consults with us. The approach is not a top-down one, far from it. It is very much based on stakeholder consultations.”

“So we’re happy to see this approach, and that until June we can see a continuation of the support,” he concluded. “And as we go along, we’ll continue discussions.”

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