Restaurants must shut earlier, holiday rentals will be fined for overcrowding and people will be encouraged to stay in their cars on the Gozo ferry as part of new measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Prime Minster Robert Abela announced the restrictions that have been put in place to prevent a spike in virus cases following the traditional carnival holiday weekend. 

He also said he wished that schools would postpone the usual two-day holiday until later in the year and that talks were underway. 

"February has to be different this year," he said.

The new restrictions mean restaurants, snack bars and kiosks will shut between 11pm and 6am throughout February while bars will not be allowed to open at all.

To mitigate the impact of this he said he would double the promised aid for bar operators to €2.2 million. 

The new measures come into effect on Monday, February 1. 

Watch the news conference as it happened

Amid concerns about increased numbers of people planning to travel to Gozo for the carnival break, Abela also said those travelling by car on the ferry will be asked to remain in their vehicles.

There will be temperature checks on people travelling by ferry from 11 - 17 February and there will be more patrols by police in Nadur, Xlendi, Marsalforn and Rabat.

The ferry will continue to operate at half capacity, with Abela warning that "although Gozo is not closed, we cannot have a situation as in the past."

He said inspectors from the Malta Tourism Authority would be inspecting rental accommodation, and warned operators that they must ensure the number of people staying there are listed on their licences.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Gozo Tourism Association had warned against fining accommodation owners for overcrowding their properties.

Abela confirmed there would be fines, to be announced by Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo later, but said he believed the measures were "balanced".

Health Minister Chris Fearne said that one of the reasons for the new restrictions was because a number of restaurants were still operating like bars

"We know that when you go out to eat, you sit down and eat but when you go out to socialise, you mix with more people," he said. "That is why the measure announced today gives a clear message: you go there to eat and not socialise in a bar-like environment."

He said the second problem health authorities noticed that what could not happen outdoors was happening indoors, alluding to reports of parties in rental accommodation.

"We will be very strict with the people renting out their properties. They must stick to the numbers and the onus will be on the licence holder. If not, the licence can be revoked."

Superintendent of Public Health, Charmaine Gauci said the measures were based on lessons learned after a spike in COVID-19 cases caused by gatherings during Christmas and New Year festivities.

"Everyone had to pay for the behaviour of a few and so we have had to introduce fresh measures," she said. 

Abela dismissed claims that there has been a lack of enforcement on restaurants, saying that the rules that were in place previously "made it possible for a person to finish a meal and then stay on to have a drink". 

He said Malta was like "heaven" in comparison to other countries, a comment he previously made in parliament referring to riots and protests in other EU member states against COVID curfews.

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