Lack of tourists and table social distancing the main contributors to the financial problems of restaurants

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A survey conducted by the Association of Catering Establishments found that the lack of tourists in Malta was the main concern of the owners following reopening.

Restaurants were allowed to reopen on May 22, but plenty of measures were put into place in order to curb the spread of COVID-19, during a time when the number of new cases in Malta were already decreasing, but were largely inconsistent.

However, there are still hints of people being fearful of going into certain public spaces, one of which being restaurants, with there being a significant fall in the number of customers in restaurants ever since the pandemic reached Malta back on March 9.

Plenty of restaurant owners would have deemed the reopening of the Malta International Airport on July 1 as a saving grace, yet it is clear that the reopening has not had the effect that it was expected to have.

The survey, which was conducted between 6 and 10 July, found that after the reopening, 47.5% of the respondents claimed that around a quarter of the tables, or even less were occupied during peak lunch hours.

Whilst 5% of the respondents claimed that more than half of the tables in July are occupied during peak lunch hours, there was also an increase in the number of responses claiming that the restaurant was empty during the hours, with 12.5% of the respondents stating this.

In June, 10% of the respondents claimed that their restaurants were empty during lunch hours. 

32.5% of the respondents answered that their restaurant does not serve lunch.

On the other hand, during peak dinner hours, there was a very marginal increase in the amount of tables occupied, with there being 7.5% of the respondents answering that their restaurant was empty during June, whilst just 2.5% in July.

Whilst this may seem positive, it is still too minimal of an effect to be extremely significant, with there still being 70% of the respondents saying that only a quarter or less of their tables were occupied, just a 5% rise from June’s 65%.

When asked what is troubling the restaurant owners the most during the pandemic, a staggering 52.5% claimed that lack of tourists was the main problem. The next highest answer was table social distancing, with just 17.5%.

Whilst restaurants have to make sure to properly put into place table social distancing, this is also a contributing factor to the number of restaurants being filled up, as what one deems to be a ‘full’ restaurant is still less than what it was before the pandemic.

Some respondents stated that the most concerning fact is that several tourist attractions such as museums are still closed, leading to a lesser amount of people in certain areas

Another concern brought up by restaurant owners is the wearing of masks or visors by the restaurant staff, with this being problematic due to there being individuals with certain health problems that do not allow them to wear such protective equipment, as well as the inconvenience of having your glasses becoming foggy as a result of wearing a mask or a visor.

The non-smoking policy was also heavily criticised, as it requires people to stay ten metres away from the restaurant whilst smoking. This is absurd for restaurants that have outdoor seating, as it will continue to drive people away from the restaurants.

Restaurants that only have indoor seating are the most in trouble, with one respondent stating that people are “still afraid of going to an indoor restaurant”.

35% of the respondents have indoor seating only, with 7.5% having outdoor seating only, and 57.5% having both.

All of these statistics show that whilst the reopening of restaurants has helped restaurants to start recovering financially, this recovery is still very marginal. Costs have remained relatively high and the government has been insensitive to this discrimination between hotel restaurants and other restaurants. Hotel restaurants receive a higher wage supplement than other restaurants.

Something very troubling for the future is the wage supplement scheme. Once such standalone wage supplements end, several restaurants will have to find ways to increase their revenue by a very substantial manner. If this is not done, then several restaurants will have to make plenty of their staff redundant.

If the wage supplement is continued for hotels and not for standalone restaurants, then it will be very concerning for the whole industry, given that hotel restaurants will be given a boost that other restaurants will not be provided with.

As stated by the Minister for Tourism, the new trend is to buy full packages, and therefore incoming tourists are dining more in hotel restaurants than in others. In spite of this, the government decided to put hotel restaurants at an unfair advantage.