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Dublin: 13 °C Thursday 2 July, 2020
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Phase One: Slow, steady and plenty of nerves as Dublin embarks on gradual re-opening

Across Dublin, traffic was a little busier as the country began the first stage of the Covid-19 roadmap.

College Green was busy with largely-empty buses this morning.
College Green was busy with largely-empty buses this morning.
Image: TheJournal.ie

IF YOU WERE expecting to see signs of a city coming back to life, Dublin this morning might have been a disappointment. As the country embarked on the first day of a loosening of restrictions, there was little new and only a touch more normality to be found on the streets of the capital.

Across the city, some businesses – earmarked by the government for re-opening in Phase One – could be seen with raised shutters and freshly cleaned windows early this morning.

Phone shops on Grafton Street were putting the final touches to new-look interiors, while staff waited around for the first sign of customers. 

“It’s a new way of doing business,” one employee from a well-known chain told TheJournal.ie just after 9am.

The company is slowly opening – the bigger stores will return first, while customers will no longer be allowed to freely swipe and handle the products. The employee was unsure about how it’d all turn out. 

It was that sense of uncertainty that seemed to characterise today for most people. After days of sunshine, it was a gloomy, wet morning as construction workers got started on building sites before 8am. 

“Look, we’re nervous,” one construction worker told TheJournal.ie. A foreman at another city centre site said that building wouldn’t begin today – instead, they were putting up signs and installing hand-washing stations. 

No one is allowed on the site without having taken a Construction Industry Federation online induction, the foreman said. The plan, he said, was that the number of workers would increase slowly every day – a gradual re-opening, not a rush back to normality. 

Elsewhere, there were reminders that it will be weeks until the sights and sounds of rush-hour Dublin return – if they ever do.

This isn’t to say that the city has been entirely quiet since Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced drastic restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 at the end of March.

There’s been protests from Debenhams workers and a small cohort of TDs have streamed in and out of Kildare Street, while supermarkets have remained open and some cafes have transformed overnight into takeaway coffee shops. 

But devoid of most of its traffic and commuters, Dublin has become an unfamiliar landscape. 

This morning traffic was a slightly busier along the quays, but most buses had only a handful of passengers, some wearing masks but many seemingly going without. 

On College Green, one of the focal points of Dublin’s congested transport system, shop staff said there was something of a change. No tourists, of course, but a few more new faces on the thoroughfare. 

David Watt, the manager of Spar on College Green, said “it’s definitely busier”.

“Unfortunately, it’s raining, which isn’t a great start to a Monday morning,” he said. But he said that “footfall is busier”.

IMG_8300 Two construction workers on Pearse Street this morning. Source: TheJournal.ie

“We’ve seen an uplift, but we’re looking at a very low base for that uplift,” he added. 

Still, early signs of life aren’t enough to sustain some businesses. Managing Director of the Coffeeangel chain, Karl Purdy, spoke to TheJournal.ie from the door of the cafe on Trinity Street. 

They’re staying closed until 8 June. “So hopefully in Phase Two, when the offices start to re-populate with people, that’s the vast majority of our trade. We don’t know what to expect, but we’re hoping that with greater numbers in the city centre it’ll make sense.”

Others were in better spirits. “People seem to be coming out more and more. Families, people trying to get out of their houses, a bit of exercise, a bit of not wanting to be there all the time. That’s where we’re finding our business coming from right now,” says Gearoid Pyne, the deputy general manager of the Arlington Hotel, which is offering coffee and food to go through its large open window on Bachelors Walk. 

“Maybe, as of today, with more professionals coming back into the city, we may start to see an upsurge as well,” said Pyne.

“Even from speaking to people I know, a lot of people are back in the offices today,” he said. “They will need places to eat and drink at lunchtime.”

On Friday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar seemed in a cautiously optimistic mood as he announced that Ireland was ready to move into Phase One. 

“Today’s announcement gives us reason to hope, but it’s not cause for celebration,” he said.

He also offered businesses some leeway in getting the new physical distancing regulations correct. 

“I’ve no doubt that’s on Monday morning and by Tuesday we will see images in the media and social media of things happening in workplaces that shouldn’t be happening, that’s what has happened in other countries as they’ve opened up too,” he said. 

“The approach will be to encourage businesses and workplaces to comply in the first couple of days. And if they don’t, then enforcement can happen, including the closure of businesses, including prosecution and fines.”

But today, there was little sign of slip-ups or ill-thought-out re-openings. To some, the invitation to re-open proved possible to resist. Wesley Baker, who runs the Decwells hardware store on South Great George’s Street, says that his business will wait another week before opening fully. 

Decwells Decwells hardware store on South Great George's Street isn't fully re-opening yet. Source: TheJournal.ie

Instead, they’ll stick with the hatch service they’ve been using to serve customers for the last seven days.

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“We just feel that it’s a little bit safer,” said Baker. “It’s not for us to decide what a person needs, but we don’t want people coming out just for the sake of it, at least for the moment. Our intention is to see how this week plays out and then maybe we might do a two-person per time policy.”

On the corner of Wexford Street, another business is taking a similar approach. Megabikes, which sells motorbikes and scooters, also has permission to re-open under Phase One. 

Robert Dixon, who works for the store, says a branch at Ballymount has re-opened fully. But things are proving a little trickier at the smaller city centre shop. 

“The social distancing measures are not in place. The city is also quieter,” he says. “That footfall isn’t just here to open the doors just yet.”

Close by, PK Cycles in the Liberties was having perspex installed in front of the till this morning. Mick Wall, who works there, said they were re-opening today. 

“People are glad to see us back open,” he said. “I expect it’ll be very busy. Nothing like the normal, but this isn’t the normal. I’d say we’ll be doing plenty of repairs, second-hand sales. A lot of people want to get off public transport.”

Health officials have stressed in recent days that the first phase of the government’s roadmap isn’t permission to return to normal. Maybe it’s the warnings, or maybe it’s the weather – but people seem to be listening. 

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