Small events to be allowed from 5 July but organisers slam lead-up as ‘discriminatory’

As event organisers across Malta complain of “unfair” and “discriminatory” processes around the granting of permits for small gatherings, health minister and deputy prime minister Chris Fearne today announced a staggered opening from 5 July for seated events of up to 100 people, rising to 200 attendees in total by the end of next month.

The events will be limited to guests holding vaccination certificates and will have to comply with existing space-limitation rules. However, those who have been clamouring for a plan to be put in place may not be entirely satisfied with the new developments.

Several businesses seeking to organise small events have accused the government of “discriminatory”, “unfair”, and non-transparent processes both in awarding permits for gatherings to take place and in enforcing protocols.

Events were banned in Malta last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and measures taken to halt the spread of the virus, creating a challenging situation for organisers and businesses that rely on them to support their business models.

The Shift spoke to various individuals in the events sector who say they’ve been frustrated by the lack of clarity around what is allowed and how a permit can be obtained.

They complain that requests for information go unanswered, emails ignored, permit applications not acknowledged, and phone calls unreturned. Yet, despite this, some events, involving a select few organisers, have been allowed to go ahead, both with and without permits.

Furthermore, several large scale events, organised by those with connections to the government, have been scheduled to take place in the coming weeks and months.

They gave their accounts to The Shift on the condition of anonymity as they believe that publishing their names could further impact their ability to get a permit. One individual who has been organising events for the corporate and public sector for over 15 years said that time is running out for their sector.

The way smaller operators have been treated is “discrimination,” one event organiser said, adding they had been “kept in the dark” and that “time was running out” as summer would soon be over and another season would be lost.

They also highlighted several smaller events that are going ahead illegally without a permit. This implies significant public health issues such as no possibility of contact tracing, no licensed security personnel, no insurance, no control on entry, and no enforcement of protocols related to COVID-19.

One owner of an established events-based business said although the government published standards and guidelines for open-air markets last May, they haven’t been able to get a permit.

“Our emails are not being acknowledged yet meanwhile other similar events are being held. I have visited some of these events and I can say that anti-COVID-19 measures are not being respected nor enforced during these events.”

This leads to discriminatory and unfair competition, event organisers said.

A third case was brought to the attention of The Shift by an established events and media company owner. They sent The Shift copies of emails sent to the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Tourism, requesting information on when events would restart and under what conditions.

The emails also asked about the application process for applying for permits and raised concerns over permits being issued to some and not to others.

In one email, they asked why the AIBC Summit (AI and Blockchain Summit) due to take place in November is being advertised when no announcements had yet been made about when events will restart. They questioned how permission could have been granted for the summit as far ahead as November, especially as when they contacted the authorities themselves, they were told it was not possible to foretell the situation so far in advance. Their emails were ignored, they said.

Health Minister Chris Fearne claimed a week ago that Malta had reached herd immunity, with sufficient people having been given both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. He also announced that borders will open for tourists, subject to presenting evidence of vaccination or a negative PCR test. The government has refused to say which hotels have been approved and how, although  the Marina San Gorg Hotel owned by the Corinthia Group said it was operating as a quarantine hotel since 1 June.

Last summer, many local events were forced to cancel due to the pandemic but at least five major events took place. These included large music festivals such as BPM which attracted some 20,000 British tourists. Another, Escape 2 The Island was touted as the saviour to a summer ruined by the pandemic. However, the numbers of new cases of COVID-19 spiked immediately after the events, which were identified as the source of many of the infections.

The Shift then revealed that many of the promoters and organisers of these events comprised a close-knit group, including donors to the Labour Party. Some of the organisers received millions from the Malta Tourism Authority.

Edward Zammit Tabona, Gerald Debono, Trevor Camilleri, and Nicholas Spiteri all received sponsorships from the MTA to organise parties during the summer months, despite the pandemic.

According to the Visit Malta website, run by the Malta Tourism Authority, “only events that are deemed secure from a health perspective are being allowed to take place”. No information is given on what criteria are used to judge this.

Yet, while small, local events organisers have had to wait months for the information Fearne finally shared today, a number of big events have long been scheduled to take place.

Drumcode Festival is scheduled for 16-20 September with tickets on sale for €249.

Between 13-16 August, the Glitch Festival is scheduled to take place at Gianpula. Advertised as including “rooftop pool parties”, “secret cave raves” and “boat party mayhem”, the lineup includes various international big-name artists. The official website bears the logo of the MTA.

The Lost and Found Festival is also scheduled to take place between 1 and 4 September this year. On the official website, they note that in the event of cancellation due to COVID, clients can either attend the event or obtain a refund. The festival is organised by Camilleri and Debono who have received significant sums from the MTA in the past.

ABODE on the Rock is scheduled for 17-21 June according to various festival sites, but it’s not clear if it will go ahead. The organiser of this event is Spiteri, who has also been the recipient of government funding.

Later in the year, the SiGMA Europe iGaming event organised by Eman Pulis has been rescheduled for 16-18 November. Due to take place at the MFCC, the conference typically attracts thousands of delegates from around the world and registration is now open. Pulis was once a host on the Labour Party’s TV station and now organises conferences and other gatherings on topics like cannabis and blockchain.

The AIBC Summit, a blockchain and emerging tech event is also scheduled for 17 and 18 November. It too is set to take place at the MFCC and is seen as potentially attracting thousands of delegates from around the world.

                           
                               
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