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After 'traumatic week', publicans looking for light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel

Health Minister Simon Harris said last week he can’t see “packed pubs” until there’s a Covid-19 vaccine.

Phil Lynott statue outside Bruxelles in Dublin.
Phil Lynott statue outside Bruxelles in Dublin.
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

BAR OWNERS KNOW that the pubs won’t be re-opening for – potentially – a very long time.

In an interview with last week’s Sunday Independent, Health Minister Simon Harris said he “can’t see how people can be in packed pubs again as long as this virus is still with us and we don’t have a vaccine or an effective treatment” for Covid-19. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Licenced Vintners Association (LVA) chief executive Donall O’Keeffe said that prior to that statement “our members were coping admirably”. 

“We were working through the reality of the closure, and resigned to the fact we might not open for a while but Harris’ comments frightened us,” he said. “We’re enormously concerned. It’s been a traumatic week.”

While the LVA represents pubs primarily in Dublin, the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) said there was a similar response from publicans outside the capital to Harris’ comments on pubs.

Its chief executive Padraig Cribben told TheJournal.ie: “The mood has been made significantly worse this week. Now it’s a little bit of hope we need not despair.”

On Sunday 15 March, the vintners meet with the Health Minister and government officials following concerns that pubs were struggling to follow the social distancing guidelines that had been announced by the Taoiseach the previous Thursday.

The government advised that all pubs across Ireand should close, and they have remained so since that day.

As Covid-19 has continued to spread and infect thousands of people across the country, restrictions placed upon the public were extended. As it stands, the restrictions are set to last until 5 May at the earliest. Government guidelines on social distancing – where people should stay 2 metres apart – are set to remain with companies needing to adapt their practices to ensure they can return to work.

Publicans are not expecting their businesses to among those allowed to reopen on that date. 

“It’s clear that the traditional model, the way we like to operate is not going to be available for a long time,” O’Keeffe said. 

Right now, we’re engaged with government on how social distancing could work. Pubs are designed to facilitate social interaction, so it’s difficult. It’s that lively environment we all love.

As pubs come in all shapes and sizes, each one will have its own problems when it comes to creating safe areas for social distancing.

Plans are being drafted by these pubs for how they can operate but the short-term problems of ensuring social distancing will be difficult to overcome.

“Policies are being worked on,” Cribben said. “They have to take into account World Health Organization guidelines, and that’s what we’re talking to the Department of Health about.”

As for what walking into a re-opened pub will look like in a month, or three months’ time, Cribben said that “it’s to early to call that”. 

O’Keeffe added that it’s a difficult scenario for bar areas in particular – drawing a distinction between pubs with a bar and lounge area to serve food.

He said that – when restaurants are permitted to reopen – some pubs that have facilities to serve food could reopen on that basis. 

Even if allowed to reopen on this basis, footfall will remain a problem for pubs if tourism doesn’t return particularly for central Dublin pubs.

“But the longer the closures goes on, the worse it’ll be,” he said. “If there’s an extended closure period into 2021, so many bars just won’t reopen. It’s as simple as that.

The single biggest issue we’re all dealing with is uncertainty [on potential reopening dates]. It’s a huge uncertainty. That causes its own problems and its own stresses. It all depends on how the number of infections [of Covid-19] develops. A sense of timelines would be really important to give us focus and something to plan and work towards.

Both pub bodies believe that – even when permitted to reopen – footfall allowed through bars in Ireland will remain significantly lower until effective treatments are developed for Covid-19.

Like those in other industries, they are calling for government supports to help them remain in business such as VAT, excise rates and supports for their fixed costs like rent and insurance.

“When pubs reopen, the level of turnover because of the various restrictions that will be put in place,” Cribben said. “It’s very challenging times, and not just for the pub trade. We do accept the public health considerations are paramount in all of this.”

Both, however, remain confident that the pub industry can survive Covid-19.

O’Keefe said: “Ultimately, we understand that if and when a vaccine is found, that’s the only thing that can solve the problem. That appears to be 12-18 months away. The hope we have is that the scientists ride to the rescue with an antiviral that manages the virus effectively as soon as possible. 

In the long run, I’d be confident that eventually we can get back to normal. Despite the challenge, the worry, the stress, we can survive.

Cribben added: “One always has to be hopeful. I have no doubt when this is over, there will be a pub trade in the country. It will be different for a while. But it’ll be there.”

About the author:

Sean Murray

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