Epidemic Emergency Situation

On 14.05.2020 an Act Amending and Supplementing the Health Act came into force. By virtue of the approved amendments the Council of Ministers and the Minister of Health were authorised to undertake actions aimed at implementation of adequate anti-epidemic measures following the official lifting of the state of emergency. Following approval of the above-described amendments, the Council of Ministers declared an epidemic emergency situation during the period 14.05.2020 – 13.06.2020.

The transitional and final provisions of the Health Act introduced amendments in many other legislative acts, the most important of which have been summarised herein below.

1. Working regime

According to Order No RD-01-262/14.05.2020 of the Minister of Health, the obligation of all employers to implement remote form of work provided that the specifics of their operations allow distant form of employment, remains effective.

If remote work turns out to be impossible, employers shall apply strict anti-epidemic measures, including:

(i) organising a briefing about the self-protection measures against COVID-19 specified in Order No RD-01-262/14.05.2020;

(ii) performing regular disinfection of workplaces with a cleaning compounds approved by the Ministry of Health;

(iii) identifying of critical points subject to regular disinfection; and

(iv) ensuring of physical distancing between the employees of at least 1.5 meters, etc.

According to the latest amendments in the Act on the Measures and Actions during the State of Emergency (currently entitled Act on the Measures and Actions during the State of Emergency and on Overcoming the Consequences after Lifting of the State of Emergency) and the Labour Code, all possibilities provided for employers during the state of emergency remain applicable during the emergency epidemic situation, including employer’s right to suspend activity of its enterprise, part thereof or the work of individual employees.

Employers may still assign unilaterally home and remote work within two months after the lifting of the state of emergency. In addition to the above, employers may still grant up to one-half of the paid annual leave and introduce part-time work in their enterprise within the two months following the lifting of the state of emergency.

Pursuant to the said amendments in the Labour Code, unpaid annual leave of up to 60 working days used during 2020 will be included in employee’s years of employment experience.

2. Advice to employers regarding resuming the normal course of work

2.1 In order to resume normal working regime, each employer should issue an order and instruct the employees to return at their usual workplaces. The order should regulate the applicable working regime during the emergency epidemic situation, and if necessary, thereafter. The order must comply with:

(i) an updated risk assessment and updated measures aimed at identifying, eliminating and minimising the risk of the spread of COVID-19 at the workplace;

(ii) already developed back-to-the-workplace plan, to be coordinated with the Labour Medicine Service of the employer; and

(iii) the requirements of Order No RD-01-262 / 14.05.2020 of the Minister of Health.

2.2 All employees shall attend extraordinary briefing and shall be instructed about the self-hygiene measures and restrictions of the outbreak of COVID-19 and about the restrictions according to Attachment No 2 and Attachment No 3 to Order No RD-01-262 / 14.05.2020 of the Minister of Health.

2.3 The employer should ensure access control applicable to all employees and third parties entering its premises and upon occurrence of fever and/or other symptoms of respiratory infections, access shall be denied.

2.4 In order to ensure the safe-being of vulnerable groups of employees (such as employees with chronic diseases, pregnant employees, employees above the age of 60, etc.) the employer should provide them with the opportunity to work remotely.

2.5 In order to reduce the contacts in the office, employers may introduce flexible or reduced working hours or shift work. Employers may also organise attendance on rotational basis so that the presence at work may be alternated with work from home.

2.6 It is recommended that employers should introduce a schedule for the use of lunch breaks and other breaks by employees in order to reduce crowding.

2.7 Workplaces must be organised in a manner ensuring a maximum distance between the employees of at least 1.5 meters. If possible, some of the employees who can perform their duties on their own may work from separate rooms independently. If the above measures cannot be complied with, it is recommended to install safety barriers between the employees.

2.8 The employers must ensure cleaning and disinfection of the premises at the workplace, including sanitary facilities and places for rest and meals according to the requirements provided in the algorithm set out in Attachment No 1 to Order RD-01-262 / 14.05.2020 of the Minister of Health.

3. The “60/40” scheme

In view of the amendments of the Labour Code, the period of validity and application of the “60/40” support scheme was further extended to 30.06.2020, as grants may be still be extended for up to three months of reduced operations.

Through the “60/40” scheme the state supports certain employers by paying 60% of the amount of the insurable earnings and the same percentage of social security contributions due by employers. The amount of the grants is calculated and based on the insurable earnings of the employees declared for January 2020.

4. Extension of some accounting and tax deadlines

The regulatory deadlines for filing of annual tax returns under art. 92 of the Corporate Income Tax Act and payment of the taxes thereof have been extended until 30.06.2020. The same extended term applies also to tax returns under art. 50 of the Personal Income Tax Act and payment of taxes thereof. The 5% discount applicable to individuals can be used until 31.05.2020. However, these reliefs do not apply to self-employed.

The terms for announcements of the annual financial statements and declarations for lack of activity during 2019 have been extended accordingly – until 30.06.2020.

5. Amendments applicable to foreigners residing in Bulgaria

The validity periods of identity cards and driving licenses expiring until 31.10.2020 have been extended by the initial amendments introduced with the Act on the Measures and Actions during the State of Emergency. Expiring personal documents shall be considered extended by six months. During the extended validity, the identity documents will remain valid and will be accepted only on the territory of Bulgaria.

Newly-adopted amendments in the Act on Foreigners in Bulgaria provide that renewal of continuous residence permits, expiring within three months as of the official lifting of the state of emergency, shall be initiated within three months as of the lifting of the state of emergency. The three months’ term shall not be considered as an interruption in the legal stay of the foreigners within the country required for issuing of long-term and permanent residence permit.

Holders of such expired continuous residence permits will be allowed to enter the territory of the Republic of Bulgaria without a visa and initiate extension of their residence status within three months after the lifting of the state of emergency.

6. Restrictions introduced by the Minister of Health

The Minister of Health issued five new orders introducing appropriate anti-epidemic measures in force during the emergency epidemic situation. In fact, most of the newly introduced measures repeat some of the rules applicable during the state of emergency. The most important effective restrictions are the following:

6.1 Prohibition of all (i) visits of entertainment and gaming halls, bars, discos, (ii) indoor areas of restaurants and cafes, (iii) classes and all extracurricular activities, group activities in schools, universities and other educational institutions, (iv) mass events, with the exception of visits of museums, galleries, libraries and cinemas at a maximum occupancy of 30%, and (v) outdoor sport events with a maximum number of participants of up to 12 people.

6.2 Visits of groceries and pharmacies within the time range from 8:30 am to 10:30 am remains prohibited for individuals under the age of 60 years.

6.3 Mall-type shopping centres resumed their work on 18.05.2020. The same applies to gyms and indoor sport events with a limit of participants in group activities – up to 10 people and independent visitors at gyms – limited to 1 person per 4 sq.m. area. Kindergartens and nurseries shall start work on 22.05.2020..

6.4 The mandatory wearing of a protective mask in public transport and all closed public places, including shops, pharmacies, institutions, etc., remains in force.

6.5 Mandatory isolation and hospital treatment is provided for all confirmed COVID-19 infected over the age of 60 and persons with similar diseases, regardless of the clinical course of the infection. Individuals with severe infection, as well as those who cannot be isolated and treated at home, should also be accepted at a medical institution.

6.6 Compulsory isolation and treatment at home for a period of 28 days is applied to patients not showing any symptoms of infection but carrying the virus, as well as patients showing mild symptoms of the virus. Contact persons are quarantined for a period of 14 days which may be further extended upon occurrence of COVID-19 symptomatic.

7. Entering and leaving the country

In addition to the above restrictions, all third-country nationals are currently banned from entering the territory of the Republic of Bulgaria, except for foreigners holding a permanent, long-term or continuous residence permits, foreign officials and medical staff.

It is worth mentioning that during the state of emergency, citizens of 12 EU Member States, where COVID-19 infection was most prevalent, were banned from entering the country. This ban has been further extended and is now applicable to all foreign nationals.

Citizens of the European Union, their family members, as well as long-term EU residents are entitled to pass through Bulgaria in order to return to their place of residence. The said exception is also valid for citizens of Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Turkey.

Bulgarian citizens and foreign residents in Bulgaria are allowed to return in the country but they are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine in their home or other place of accommodation.

A specific regime for entering and leaving the country is provided for the truck drivers.