Updated 10.45pm

All non-essential shops and services will be closed as of Monday morning and public gatherings will be banned, amid the coronavirus outbreak, Health Minister Chris Fearne said on Sunday. 

The measure comes into effect at 8am on Monday morning. 

Shops selling food or medicine, pet shops, banks, post offices and transport services will continue operating as usual, as would telephony and other essential services. 

Delivery services, stationers, offices and other workplaces will not be affected by the ban. The construction sector will continue to operate. 

Other retail or service outlets providing services deemed "non-essential" must remain closed or face a €3,000 fine. They range from clothes to household good stores to hairdressers and beauticians.

All public gatherings or meetings will also be banned, with law-breakers also being fined €3,000. 

A legal notice detailing specifically which shops and services were affected would be published "tomorrow", Fearne said. 

"Work will continue," the minister said, adding that the new measures were intended to reduce contact between people.   

Fearne made the announcement after Malta registered 17 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours – the country’s highest one-day total so far. 

The country has now confirmed 90 cases of the novel coronavirus. One patient is in intensive care while 27 have been hospitalised. Two have recovered and the rest are recovering at home. 

Fearne said the decision to shut non-essential shops and services was taken because authorities were now seeing community spread of the COVID-19 virus.

While most daily reported COVID-19 cases have so far been linked to recent travel overseas, there are also a growing number of coronavirus infections which authorities have been unable to trace to any other known link to the virus. 

'Avoid comparisons'

Fearne urged people to avoid the temptation to draw comparisons between Malta and other countries, saying measures had to be applied depending on the stage at which the disease had progressed.

“Some other countries are in a more advanced stage and have taken stricter, harsher measures than the ones we need,” he said. "We are not at that stage yet".  

Schools, university and childcare centres had been ordered shut 12 days ago, with restaurants, bars and other such establishments also closed down some days later. 

The new measures announced on Sunday further restrict the number of outlets which can remain open, while stopping short of bringing about a complete lockdown.

Apart from introducing measures to reduce contact between people, authorities have also been ramping up training efforts for healthcare workers and stocking up on medical equipment and resources. 

Testing for the virus, which currently happens at Mater Dei Hospital and at a specially-created testing hub in Luqa, will also be stepped up in the days to come, Fearne said, with a Gozo-based testing hub in the works. 

Chamber of SMEs calls for greater clarity 

In a statement later, the Malta Chamber of SMEs said many businesses in the non-essential category had themselves decided to close in the past week due to lack of business and to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Malta, it said, had now effectively made another decisive move towards the lockdown. 

However, it said greater clarity was needed about the exact list of operations that would be allowed to continue. It called on the government to publish the full information that would be required with such announcements since immediate decisions affecting human resources needed to be taken.

It noted that such announcements were not being accompanied by the necessary economic support measures as had been in the case in other countries abroad, such as in the UK and Denmark.

“The economic pressures are extremely worrying and an emergency response mechanism is needed today.

“Employers and their employees are trying to push through impossible situations that are affecting their day-to-day life and mental health, hoping for a breakthrough in discussions,” the chamber said.

It said a message of economic hope was necessary for the economy not to continue to deteriorate. Immediate measures were necessary to prevent major damage to businesses, leading to redundancies.

Shops which have to close

In a statement late in the evening, the government said that the shops which have to close are those whose main business relate to the sale of clothing, sportswear, jewellery, hand bags and leather goods, costume jewellery and accessories, footwear, non-prescription eyewear, perfumeries, beauty products, haberdasheries, soft furnishings, household appliances, souvenirs, discounted items, luggage, toys, hobbies, furniture, florists and vaping.

The decision covers shops whether operating in shopping malls and/or
elsewhere. They may still sell and provide delivery services of their products in the community.

Other outlets providing non-essential services which have to close are hairdressers, barbers, beauticians, spas, nail artists, nail technicians and tattooists.

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