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Re-opening Ireland: 'We have one shot at this and we have to make sure we hit the target'

As we await the government’s road-map to re-opening, plans are already afoot for what the “new normal” will be.

Image: RollingNews.ie

AS WE GET closer to 5 May, the government has been giving some indications of what we can expect life to look like as the restrictions in place on all of us slowly start to be lifted. 

We now know that music festivals across the country due to take place this summer will be cancelled. Sports events such as the League of Ireland and the GAA championships are in serious jeopardy. Schools may return in some form, with students due to sit their Leaving Cert at the end of July.

As far back as St Patrick’s Day, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe was warning the Irish public that the “normal” world we knew before the “onslaught of Covid-19″ is not a normal we will be returning to.

As we now know, the deadly virus that has infected over 17,000 of us and taken the lives of over 800 people. A serious recession has hit as we aimed to halt the spread of Covid-19.

We also now know that over half a million people have been put out of work due to the coronavirus, and over one million people are now dependent on income support from the State. Whole sectors have seen the majority of employees out of work, and the pressure now falls on the government to point the way for businesses to reopen and those jobs to return.

004 Harris briefing Source: RollingNews.ie

Health Minister Simon Harris told RTÉ 2FM’s Breakfast with Doireann and Eoghan this week the government is working on ”a roadmap, which will basically say look this is how we are going to try and re-open Ireland”.

TheJournal.ie has spoken to businesses and groups across a variety of sectors to learn what work they’re doing and what plans may be put in place as restrictions begin to lift and we start to experience whatever the “new normal” will be. 

Each person we spoke to emphasised the need to follow the public health guidelines and said they were aiming to return to work on the basis that this wouldn’t be exacerbating the spread of Covid-19. They were unanimous, however, that picking up the pieces after the coronavirus onslaught will prove extremely difficult.

Health guidelines

Businesses of any kind will be grappling with a number of problems after closing their doors. Fixed costs like rent will still have to be paid – unless they came to some arrangement with landlords. And then – if they can re-open – they’ll have to make sure it’s safe for both staff and customers.

For their employees too, they may be in furlough or in receipt of the emergency unemployment payment. But will they have a job to go back to when the restrictions begin to lift?

99 Coronavirus Dublin Source: Leon Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

David Fitzsimons from Retail Excellence Ireland said a huge level of preparenedess will be needed for retailers to re-open their doors when the government gives the go-ahead.

“We know a number of them won’t be re-opening full stop,” he told TheJournal.ie. “To ensure social distancing may not be that difficult for customers, but for staff it’ll be a huge challenge.

Imagine walking into a Vodafone shop. Or a Field’s jewellers. Staff will have to stay apart.

Fitzsimons said that the extensive precautions being taken by pharmacies that have remained open throughout this crisis shows how difficult it has been. 

His organisation has made a document of guidelines for retailers for when they open again. 

Under headings like “managing the wellbeing of our colleagues and our customers” and ” “ensuring rigorous enforcement of social distancing for customers and colleagues alike”, it has a set of practical advice for those preparing a return to work.

One such guideline explains: “A central matter to consider regarding distancing measures are payments. We are aware that some large national retailers are planning to only accept contactless payments when they reopen. This might only be for a short number of weeks, but it is an important consideration.”

Fitzsimons said that other retailers were considering actively banning the practice of browsing in, for example, clothes shops. Under such a system, if a customer touches an item they may be expected to pay for it.

Restaurants face similar problems when it comes re-opening. Adrian Cummins from the Restaurant Association of Ireland told TheJournal.ie that restaurants around the country are working on proposals for how they can re-open their doors.

dont be afraid 542 Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

“We’ve been using social distancing guidelines issues by the Department of Health, and also looking at the World Health Organization guidance for restaurants,” he said. “While they make sense from a health point of view, cost is going to be a major issue once we re-open.”

What would that look like when you walk into a restaurant in a few weeks’ or months’ time?

One scenario: firstly, you’ll have to sanitise your hands on the way into the restaurants. You can have a maximum of four people at your table across 10 square metres. You’ll have at least one metre between the chair you’re sitting in and another chair back-to-back.

Restaurant staff may be wearing masks and will provide fresh cutlery to customers on the way in. When they finish their meal and leave, the table they sat at is completely sanitised again. 

Cummins said: “It’s common sense, and nothing that is beyond us to do. The problem is if it’s economically viable to open under these conditions.”

Mandate trade union’s general secretary John Douglas told TheJournal.ie that the need for sectors to make plans themselves for how they can operate in future is vital for workers who are anxious about their future.

“All our members in the bar sector are currently out of a job,” he said. “Members want to get back to work. And they’re concerned about their future job prospects.”

Critical of government’s initial messaging towards businesses and their staff, Douglas said that messaging needs to drastically improve in the coming weeks.

It’s hard to see an immediate start back in the bar trade, in particular. I genuinely think that stakeholders in various sectors need to come up with a plan themselves.  In terms of the rebooting being on a phased basis, I think there needs to be cooperation between employers, trade unions and govenrment. No one knows sectors better than the people in them. 

Consumer demand

A major challenge will be whether or not people actually start going into these shops and restaurants and other businesses again once they re-open and if footfall can come back. 

Ireland won’t be the outlier when it comes to lifting restrictions. Countries all over the world are contemplating how they lift similar lockdown measures. The ones which have done so already have lessons for us to learn about what happens when they begin to ease, and businesses are keeping a close eye on what can be gleaned so far.

Unfortunately, early indicators from those countries are not good, according to Fitzsimons.

Lockdown Ballyfermot574 Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

“The whole commercial world is changed,” he said. “We could lose a significant portion of the Irish retail industry. Profiling other countries where lockdown has lifted so far – like Germany, Austria – footfall has not returned.

For the next six to eight months, we’ll see a period of a lack of commerce with incredibly prudent consumer behaviour and a migration to online forever. The small guys lose out. And Amazon is the beneficiary.

Neil McDonnell of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprise Association (ISME) told TheJournal.ie that while the outlook for many businesses is indeed bleak, the crisis as a whole is “manageable”.

“It’s not the same as the 2010/2011 crunch which was caused by various mismanagements all at the time,” he said. “This is a demand and supply problem. We just have to keep our heads above water. Those SMEs have not been trading recklessly. They’re fundamentally good businesses.”

Cummins said that, for restaurants, they may have been profitable before but if they physically can’t have the same number of customers as before – despite having a similar level of outgoings – that will make the situation very difficult. 

“We in hospitality will have to think [about the new norms of social distance] so our industry can bounce back sooner rather than later,” he said. “It could be the best way to allow people to drink alcohol in a structured manner, as they have social drinks in a way that involves social distancing. We can adapt. We have to.”

What happens next?

From a retailers perspective, lobbying the government for help to recover won’t be a case of “will-they-won’t-they”. 

“They just have to,” Fitzsimons of Retail Excellence Ireland said. This could come in the form of rent support and incentivised schemes for retailers with falling revenues to retain a larger number of staff, for example. Others we spoke to called for schemes to provide direct finance to firms who need it. 

Cummins was unequivocal. “It’s in the hands of the government to support SMEs by whatever means possible,” he said.

Unless we get a bailout of the magnitude that was equivalent to what the banks got in 2011, you’ll have 50% of restaurants across the country that won’t be around.

The restaurants association head also called for a “major advertising campaign” from the State to assure people that they can have the confidence to go about their daily business.

Debenhams protest52 Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Sinead Nolan, from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said it’s important the government is as transparent as possible when it comes to this. 

Nolan said the right to protest – as shown by the recent Debenhams protest – and simply the right to go about one’s daily business has to be respected and maintained as we move forward beyond the current restrictions.

“We’re calling for a general impact assessment [of these restrictions and how they're lifted], and have written a letter to the Taoiseach about the needs for a human rights impact assessment,” she told TheJournal.ie.

The longer it goes on, the harder it is to justify ongoing restrictions of our rights. While we’re still living under the shadow of Covid, it’s understandable. We need the lifting of restrictions to be guided by human rights. And we also want to see the garda powers and how they’re being used.

One shot

There was a unanimity from all perspectives on one core issue: we can’t lift restrictions only to see them introduced again if it leads to a massive surge in the number of people infected with Covid-19.

With the government due to publish its plans within the next week, the urgency of finalising them and providing clarity could not be greater.

pubs 06 Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

McDonnell said: “We’re not expecting the government to set dates. What we are looking for is that people will have an understanding of what the strategy will be. Businesses will do their own planning, but we do need to see the big picture.”

All businesses will be looking to re-open as soon as they can, but the hit they’ve already taken cannot be repeated according to Cummins.

“No point in reopening if we power down again,” he said. “It has to be managed properly.

A managed staged way that’s right for the country. Gets through the crisis in the least pain as possible. We’ve taken a lot of pain already.

Mandate’s Douglas echoed this point. 

“Our economy won’t survive a second lockdown,” he said. “It’ll just tank. We have one shot at this and we have to make sure we hit the target.”

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Sean Murray

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