A Legal Notice regulating the use of face masks will be amended to allow people to take their mask off while eating and drinking, a Health Ministry spokesperson has told Lovin Malta.
There was confusion over the weekend as several people were fined after they took off their masks to eat at public places, including picnic areas.
Many people commented that eating in public had suddenly become illegal, but it transpires that the removal of masks in public has been banned since October of last year. The only change was that the police have suddenly started enforcing this particular law more intensely.
What are the exemptions?
The wearing of masks at all times in public became mandatory by Legal Notice 402 of 2020. The only people exempted from wearing a mask at all times are children under the age of three and persons with severe cognitive, physical, mental or respiratory impairments. For the general public, the temporary removal of masks was only allowed for; children in kindergarten (while in the classroom); during intense physical activity; when speaking or providing assistance to any individual who relies on lip reading to communicate; during official public speaking provided that a physical distance of at least two meters between individuals is maintained; when requested to remove the mask for identification purposes; to receive any medical treatment involving the face; and when seated at establishments where food and drink is served. There was also an unofficial exemption for smoking, but this is not found anywhere in the law. Many have said that this exemption – confirmed by Health Minister Chris Fearne last year – discriminates in favour of smokers.
Under new rules announced last week, restaurants, cafes and snack bars can only provide a take-away service, and consumption of food and drink at their promises is not allowed. The latest round of measures came as Malta registered record numbers of Covid-19 cases.
People have claimed on social media posts that the closure of restaurants means that eating in public areas “has now become illegal”, but this is not exactly true – people have actually never been allowed to remove their masks in public to eat.
People have complained that with no activities taking place, and with restaurants and cafes closed, one of the few options left is to go for a picnic in the countryside. Many have argued that they should be allowed to remove the mask if they keep a distance from others. But there were several reports of crowds gathered near cafes and restaurants, masks off, consuming their take-away food and drinks, in breach of the six-person gathering rule.
Law to be updated
A spokesperson for the Health Ministry told Lovin Malta on Monday that the legal notice will now be updated.
“Following the measures announced last Thursday where establishments can only serve food on a takeaway basis, the legal notice is being adjusted to cater for the temporary removal of masks during the consumption of food or drinks in public places,” the spokesperson said.
“It must be stated that this has always been the spirit of the law, in fact on previous occasions it was already clarified that a mask could be taken off when smoking a lit tobacco product.”
The ministry clarified that the temporary removal of face masks shall not be permissible if a person is eating or smoking whilst walking.
Over 700 fined for not wearing mask
Meanwhile, it was announced on Monday that over 700 people were fined for not wearing a face mask over the past seven days, accounting for 90% of Covid-19- related fines issued during that period. In total, 5,768 inspections were carried out by the police, the Malta Tourism Authority, the Environmental Health Directorate and Transport Malta.
789 fines were issued for breaches of laws aimed at stopping the spread of the virus. Out of these, 706 were related to the legal notice regulating the use of face masks. 56 people were fined for being part of groups larger than six. The rest were fines related to breaches of the law by establishments or banned events. There was also one case related to the number of people found in a residence. Under new rules introduced last week, private gatherings cannot be attended by people coming from more than four different households. 2,910 quarantine inspections were carried out, but no one was found in breach. Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci said last week that there are over 7,000 people in quarantine.