Eyewitness accounts, footage and photography paint Paceville still pumping in the pandemic, with the St Julian’s community and society at large bearing the brunt of breached regulations as restaurants operate like bars and maskless revellers mingle and spill onto its streets.

Although bars, closed since October, will not reopen on Monday, as had been planned, to curb the spread of COVID-19, St Julian’s mayor Albert Buttigieg complains that some establishments and patrons continue to “defeat the system”.

Describing behaviour that is “symptomatic of the country”, he said: “If you cannot get in from the door, then you use the window.”

Buttigieg was referring to restaurants operating as bars.

Establishments licensed as restaurants can remain open but the loophole means that whether they are actually serving food or merely acting as bars, where clients socialise freely, is another story.

Coupled with disinterested clients, especially youths, health authority directives are still not being abided by, Buttigieg said.

‘Like a regular Friday night’

In fact, an eyewitness, who went to a Paceville establishment, said the waiter immediately told him he had to order food if he wanted alcohol.

However, in the main area, a group of about 10, which doubled by the end of the night, was getting drinks and mingling, with not a single tray of food going its way.

“By 10.30pm, the entire place was packed as it would be on a regular Friday night,” he recounted. He saw bouncers letting people in without masks, while the head waitress had hers pulled down to her chin all the time he was there.

In the indoor section downstairs, tables were not distanced properly and no one was wearing a mask, not even when going to the bathroom, the eyewitness recalled.

Booths had up to 12 people in them and patrons from different tables, all without masks, mixed with each other.

Upstairs also got very crowded, with people standing about a foot away from one’s own table, talking, dancing and smoking.

“We decided to leave out of sheer frustration and also fear that we may contract COVID-19 in an environment like this,” the eyewitness said.

Slap in the face of law-abiding operators

When reporting parties on restaurant roofs and other breaches of health regulations to the police and the Malta Tourism Authority, the mayor of the nightlife mecca said the council was constantly told these were covered by permits.

Buttigieg expressed his “disappointment” about the “unfair” situation, saying it was a slap in the face of law-abiding entertainment establishment owners doing their utmost to survive, quality tourism and even the elderly.

“While one group of society acted irresponsibly and did what it wanted, the others suffered,” Buttigieg maintained, adding that a St Julian’s band club – the only place where the elderly could gather – was shut.

Security doing their job and controlling the situation- Chamber of SMEs

While members of the community faced depression and loneliness, others partied on, he said.

The situation in Paceville was also an affront to the “quality tourism” the country was aiming to attract, with a contradictory focus on mediocrity by some outlets.

Buttigieg also expressed his disappointment that a New Year’s Eve wild fight in a Paceville restaurant, where the “police risked their lives to intervene”, had still yielded no fines and arraignments although several perpetrators were arrested.

‘Paceville is a dead town’

Philip Fenech, deputy president of the Chamber of SMEs, has vehemently denied mayhem in Paceville, stating it was a “big blatant lie that people are doing what they want” and insisting it was a “cemetery”, with just pockets of activity.

“I would be the first to complain,” the person responsible for tourism, hospitality and leisure said.

“Our duty is to see that things are balanced and there is no unfair competition,” he said, adding it was mostly a matter of perception.

Bars and nightclubs remain shuttered and only a handful of restaurant/pubs were operating, in accordance with regulations, and requiring bookings, Fenech said. He singled out about five of these, rubbishing claims that health directives were being overlooked.

“Nothing is perfect,” he acceded, with some breaches at peak times, when people would get up and move around without a mask, not being excluded.

“I see security doing their job and controlling the situation,” Fenech said about no open-door policies, chains and checks on entry and everyone wearing masks.

Other restaurants, cafeterias and snack bars in the area were almost empty, with only food-delivery taxis coming and going non-stop at peak times.

“That was the sort of trade in Paceville,” he said, where the most popular nightclubs, the worst hit of the entertainment industry, have been closed since August.

Painting a picture of restrictions, with ongoing checks, rather than “anarchy”, he admitted to isolated cases of infringements but added that initial enforcement had public health even checking orders to see what people were actually eating.

“The law does not tell you to stop drinking,” he continued. Whether patrons were now getting around this was another story but food was usually seen at tables.

“I have even heard of reports because tables moved slightly closer during the course of the evening, showing that distances were also being checked,” Fenech said.

‘Too much enforcement’ of COVID rules – minister

Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo on Tuesday dismissed concerns about catering establishments flouting public health rules, saying that he is sometimes told that there is too much rather than too little enforcement. 

Enforcement for such establishments is the responsibility of the Malta Tourism Authority, which falls under Bartolo’s remit.

However, Bartolo said he believed MTA inspectors were doing a good job and dismissed concerns about lax enforcement.

“There are times when people tell me the opposite, that there is too much enforcement. We always seek to strike a balance and make sure that the MTA is doing a good job,” Bartolo said. 

The minister was unable to say how many MTA inspectors would be patrolling establishments throughout the carnival period.

He said: “It is not my job to know such numbers. There are people at MTA who are tasked with that and I let them do their job because I trust them.”

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