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Justice chancellor: Time restrictions on establishments not serving purpose

Beer on tap. Photo is illustrative.
Beer on tap. Photo is illustrative. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise believes that time restrictions on events held in public indoor spaces, which are based on last year's epidemiological situation, are not strictly necessary for slowing the spread of infection with the COVID-19 virus in order to ensure hospitals' capacity to function. Alternative measures should be considered as well.

The Office of the Chancellor of Justice was petitioned by a business owner who has fallen on hard times due to restrictions on hours of operation imposed by the Estonian government on entertainment establishments in connection with the coronavirus pandemic.

In a response dated Jan. 14, the chancellor of justice found that, at the time, the need for hospitalizations had not increased significantly since these time restrictions were implemented, and that the justifications cited for implementing these restrictions are no longer relevant.

"Based on the letter of explanation accompanying the order, it is unclear how time restrictions specifically contribute to achieving this goal," the office's response to the business owner states.

The government has implemented this restriction based on the premise that the risk of infection is greater late at night, but has not taken into consideration the fact that the risk of infection depends on factors unrelated to time, such as the susceptibility to infection of the people sharing a space as well as their means and duration of exposure and their environment.

The government likewise has not explained why it wouldn't be possible to reduce contacts via measures less burdensome to business owners, such as restrictions on capacity or increased distancing.

Time-based restrictions on hours of operation restrict the freedom of entrepreneurship provided for in the Estonian Constitution, and such restrictions must be proportional to the desired objective.

"Thus, a detailed justification must be evident in the order regarding why a restriction has been implemented, and the restriction itself must be necessary, appropriate and proportionate," the letter states.

The restriction currently in force was implemented last november and was based on the epidemiological situation at that time. The chancellor of justice noted that the epidemiological situation has since changed significantly, and that forecasted case numbers and hospitalizations described at the time the restriction was implemented did not materialize.

The introduction of restrictions on entertainment establishments' hours of operation was based on the possibility of casual contact, but research has not supported the efficacy of time-based restrictions on reducing such contacts.

Madise believes that restrictions should be based solely on the epidemiological situation in order to ensure hospitals' capacity to function, and added that other arguments aren't appropriate in discussing the lifting of restrictions.

The economic effects of restrictions on hours of operation have not been analyzed either, nor have any relief measures been introduced to counter said economic effects.

"If a business owner has suffered losses due to restrictions, these [losses] have not been compensated by support measures and the business owner believes this to be wrongful, the business owner can go to court and claim damages sustained by a wrongful or lawful administrative act," the letter states.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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