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Business groups say members should steer clear of online campaigners calling for 'great re-opening'

A campaign to re-open essential business began earlier this year.

Image: Sasko Lazarov via RollingNews.ie

BUSINESS GROUPS HAVE urged the public not to defy lockdown rules following an orchestrated attempt by online activists in recent weeks calling on people to reopen non-essential retail and hospitality activity. 

These activists have set up several groups in recent weeks in a bid to try to swell support for businesses to open their doors in defiance of the health guidelines.

Gardaí are also aware of these groups, which have set up a planned protest tomorrow afternoon in Dublin city centre. 

A planned ‘Great Re-Opening’ day was due to go ahead on 30 January but failed to materialise. Efforts to convince owners of small businesses to open for Valentine’s Day were also unsuccessful.

Neil McDonnell, the CEO of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprise Association (ISME), condemned the social media campaigns and urged business owners to continue to comply with the restrictions. 

He told TheJournal.ie: “On one hand we have sympathy – they have lost their livelihoods and the supports available are not sufficient. This reopen movement has been active for several weeks. We do not condone their actions at all. It is very frustrating to see law-abiding businesses staying shut and then others opening. 

“We condemn the activities of these people opening up.”

McDonnell said he understands the frustrations of business owners and called on the Government to offer more support to struggling businesses so they can reopen safely. 

One area where McDonnell said the Government was failing is in relation to rapid antigen testing. 

This testing regime is quick and cheap and could allow staff to get tested before the shifts start to give them peace of mind, McDonnell said.

“For example, one of these tests cost around €5. Look at the economy of this. Seventy of these tests add up to what one person on the PUP is getting. It is inexplicable that the State has not looked into this,” McDonnell added. 

Calls for the pubs to reopen have been a common demand since the pandemic began. Many publicans have not reopened their doors since last March and look set to be shut until at least the summer. 

Many of the social media accounts calling for the ‘Great Re-Opening’ have said pubs should open.

But spokesman for the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, Brian Foley, said the online campaigners aren’t the ones taking the risk. 

1171 Covid 19 Source: Sasko Lazarov

“Firstly, I haven’t heard any of the members thinking of reopening. It’s online commentary. There has been great compliance from pub owners. All the commentary is coming from people who are saying they’ll come in for a pint if the pub reopens. That is very different to a pub owner losing his license because he broke the law.

“There is so much anxiety in our industry. There needs to be a real roadmap for getting back to work from the Government. That’s what we are saying.”

There are a range of supports and grants available to businesses in Ireland which are struggling under Covid restrictions. Businesses can apply for loans as well as credit guarantee schemes under Government initiatives. Tax payments can also be deferred. A full list of supports can be found here

There have been increased calls for additional supports in the wake of Tuesday’s government announcement extending the lockdown.

Arrests and the far-right

In Balbriggan this week, gardaí arrested seven people after a woman attempted to reopen her business. She is currently before the courts charged under the 1947 Health Act.

These arrests have galvanised many supporters of a ‘re-opening’ online, including right-wing commentators who are now using this woman’s plight to whip up support for their causes. 

After its launch, the Great Re-Opening campaign was perpetuated by far-right commentators – including conspiracy theorists and those who believe Covid-19 is fake. 

However, the campaign has tapped into a growing feeling of frustration among the public and has seen people from across the ideological spectrum calling for the restrictions to be lifted.

In a statement following the seven arrests in Balbriggan this week, Fingal Communities Against Racism (FCAR) said it is concerned that “far-right groups are urging small business owners to open their businesses despite public health restrictions”.

FCAR, which has routinely tried to combat the racist misinformation around Balbriggan, warned business owners to be wary about who is giving them legal advice and what their agenda is.

Their statement read: “The far-right sees Covid as an opportunity to exploit people’s difficulties in order to gain a media profile and support. Business owners need to be wary about who is giving them legal advice and what their agenda is.

“For instance, is advice coming from legal practitioners who are registered with the Law Society and Bar Council? If business-owners break Covid restrictions on foot of advice that does not stand up in court, they will be ones who may end up facing consequences, including fines.”

Gathering pace 

The next planned ‘re-opening’ is being billed for 20 March. There are also smaller campaigns calling on businesses in towns such as Tralee in Kerry and Westport in Mayo to open their doors on 1 March.

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The nationwide campaign, which has a branch for every county, was set up following a similar British project late last year. 

Those who are part of the campaign been warned online not to spout conspiracy theories and not to personally attack those who don’t agree with them. 

A pinned message from the group reads: “Welcome to the Republic of Ireland Great re-opening. This is the Irish branch of the decentralized coordinated effort to push back against Governments unconstitutional and unjust Covid19 policies. We are all leaders!

“We believe through the power of the people we can peacefully and legally turn the tide to a more just approach to handling Covid-19.”

The group, which has thousands of followers and subscribers, also urges users to stay on-topic and help with the distribution of leaflets and stickers.  But it warned its members that they will be removed if they engage in abusive behaviour.

Screenshot 2021-02-25 at 12.29.10 PM Rules for those operating in the Great Re-Opening's chat rooms.

A spokesperson for the Department of Enterprise said: ”

“The country is currently at Level 5 restrictions and only essential retail outlets are permitted to open.

The full list of essential retail outlets is available here. This is to stop people congregating in order to limit the spread of the virus.

“It is important to say that under Level 5, all retailers – essential and non-essential – can continue to trade through ‘remote ordering’, either online or over the phone, for home delivery. The Department has been engaging with retailers to ensure Covid-19 guidelines are followed.”

Officially, gardaí say they do not comment on “third-party material” and said each business that opens will be punished under the law.

However, behind the scenes gardaí are preparing to act if they receive reports of people defying the laws.

A spokesman said: “An Garda Síochána does not comment or speculate on 3rd party material either printed or posted online in any format. There are a number of Public Health Regulations currently in place. An Garda Síochána will investigate any breaches of these regulations.

“In respect of regulations, which are declared to be Penal Regulations under the Health Act 1947 as amended, An Garda Síochána will adopt the approach of the Four Es which will see Gardaí engage, explain, encourage, and as a last resort, enforce. “Where Gardaí find potential breaches of the public health regulations a file is prepared for the DPP in each case or a Fixed Payment Notice is issued where appropriate.”    

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