Craic will have to wait as Dublin’s pubs laid low
As Ireland’s watering holes tentatively reopen, for a time at least – many in the capital remain shut, reports Simon Foy
The windows in Grogans Castle Lounge on Dublin’s South William Street are plastered with neon pink signs that can be found on pubs throughout the city. “Abandoned by Government. Over 3,500 pubs remain closed since March 15 by order of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. Open the pubs,” the poster exclaims.
Despite their place at the heart of communities and the tourist industry, about half of the country’s 7,100 watering holes were closed for more than six months, as Ireland’s cautious attempt to reopen its economy allowed only food-serving pubs to restart operations in late June.
On Monday, most “wet” pubs – those that do not serve food – finally reopened. However, publicans in Dublin – including Grogans’ Daniel Smith – have been forced to keep their shutters down for the foreseeable future due to a spike in virus cases in the capital in recent weeks.
“It seems as though the government either doesn’t trust publicans or the public to behave responsibly when they’ve had a few drinks,” Smith says. “And I don’t know if that stems back to them thinking that Irish people only go out to get drunk and go on the lash. That’s just not the case.”
The prolonged closure of non-food pubs and bars – the longest shutdown in Europe – typifies the Irish government’s softly-softly approach to getting the economy back to some sort of normality after a strict lockdown in the spring.
Pubs that serve food opened on June 29 but with tight restrictions, including a controversial rule that forced customers to order a meal worth at least €9 (£8.30) if they wanted to have an alcoholic drink. Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, says the rule
‘I treat it as a war and I say we keep our head down. It’s a pandemic, so I think about our health and that of customers’
made no sense: “We ended up force-feeding oven pizzas into people who didn’t want them.”
Last week, the Irish government outlined a new five-level strategy for “Living with Covid” that allows counties to move between different levels of restrictions.
Dublin was placed on level three in an attempt to slow the rise in infections, meaning that restaurants and non-food pubs can only operate in outdoor areas or serve takeaways again, and Dubliners cannot leave the county, while the rest of Ireland was put on level two.
However, there are fears that at least eight other counties could suffer the same restrictions as Dublin as soon as this week, forcing swathes of the hospitality industry to shut once more. “We could have 200,000 people lose their jobs in the sector,” Cribben says.
Dan O’Brien, chief economist at the Institute of International and European
Affairs, says Ireland has been an outlier in terms of reopening the economy.
He says the country has been “more dramatic” about the virus compared to its European neighbours, which has led to a greater sense of trepidation about reopening certain industries.
A recent poll conducted by the department of health found that more than half of respondents were in favour of tighter restrictions, while less than a third were against the introduction of more draconian measures.
“We talk about [coronavirus] more and it’s more the focus of every news bulletin,” O’Brien says. “But I think it’s disproportionate not to live in some sort of normal way. And closing down businesses, not giving people the choice to assess risks for themselves will ultimately be proven the wrong outcome.” His caveat is that it’s too early to determine whether the “Swedish or New Zealand model” will be the correct approach. But while cases are rising, hospitalisations and deaths remain a fraction of the numbers seen in the first wave of the pandemic, O’Brien notes.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), Ireland’s version of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), is largely responsible for the prolonged closure of non-food pubs.
Smith, from Grogans, says it is clear that Nphet does not think pubs are environments that are conducive to living with Covid, despite there being only a handful of cases linked with them since late June.
But Nphet’s cautious messaging has struck a chord with many people, to the extent that some pub owners have decided to stay shut for public health reasons.
Josephine Keating, who runs Keatings Corner House in Cahersiveen, County Kerry, says Nphet has done “great work”, but with the number of cases “going up and up” she will not be pouring pints anytime soon.
“I treat it as a war and I say we keep our head down. It’s a pandemic, so I think about our health and our customers’ health,” she says. “Older people are being particularly careful so are they going to come into the pub? I don’t think they are.”
Keating adds that the closure of pubs has been terrible for rural communities because they are one of the few social centres in the locality. “The isolation for some people now is terrible. I feel desperately sorry for older people because they are losing out on the last few years of their lives.”
Others are keen to get back to business. Sophie Blake-Gallagher, who runs Rodden’s Bar in Buncrana, County Donegal, says it’s a “massive relief to be able to reopen after a very stressful few months”.
However, she feels the government could do much more to help the sector get back on its feet, pointing to the UK’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme as a good example of encouraging people to spend cash in local businesses.
The government did announce a €16m support package for the pub sector last month – a sum industry leaders derided as “crumbs”.
O’Brien says bankruptcies in the hospitality sector are inevitable and he expects the unemployment rate to soon start rising above its 15pc level – it was just 5pc at the start of the year. Another 15pc of the workforce is being propped up by government wage subsidies.
With mortgage holidays and business rates suspensions set to end at the end of the month, the pub industry could face many casualties without further support.
Smith gives a bleak forecast. “Pubs in Ireland are the essence of everything that is great about this country,” he says. “They’re about going and having a chat and meeting your mates and having a bit of craic.
“But if we don’t get the chance to open here in Dublin, we’re looking at mass closures. If that happens, it will cause the city to lose a part of its soul and a big part of its tourist attraction.”
The reopening of the Emigrant Bar and Eatery in Athy, Co Kildare