Table service, booths, and toilets with traffic lights: Irish pubs plan for an uncertain future after Covid-19

Some pubs are set to reopen towards the end of the month, but only under continuing physical-distancing restrictions, according to the government's revised road map on reopening the country after months of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the easing of lockdown restrictions will be done a few weeks earlier than first proposed, with effectively a rolling timetable of five phases collapsed into four. 

However, many pubs are already planning on opening their doors on June 29, as they have restaurant licenses and serve food, and the softening of the regulations may still do little to help many pubs to reopen their doors and start to trade profitably.                 

The Government has said that pubs without restaurant licenses will also be allowed to open in late June, as long as they can operate like restaurants and be table service only.

However, publicans will want to get specific information about the restrictions and will likely continue to press their case for the physical-distancing rules to be relaxed.                                       

Michael O'Donovan, chairperson of the Cork branch of the Vintners Federation of Ireland, said publicans were waiting for further guidelines from the Government on ways to open safely. 

Speaking before the late Friday announcement, he said: "Publicans are starting to work on their own individual premises but it's also hard to do work when we don't have specific guidelines or protocols from the government," he said.

Mr O'Donovan said he has hasn't made major changes, at The Castle Inn, in Cork city. 

"We are in the process of painting the bar and doing a few changes, but with regards to getting specific things ready, it's hard to do specific work on it without the guidelines," he said, adding that although main pubs had done preparatory work there was still a lot of guesswork involved.

"We are all working on the two-metre social distancing, and marking out our bars, but we are hoping and praying that will be reduced to one-metre sooner rather than later. It just means you have more capacity, a better ability to trade, and it will be more viable to survive. The two metres will make it very difficult," he said. 

Mr O'Donovan hasn't heard of any pubs making the decision to close permanently just yet, but said a lot of other publicans have said the two-metre social distancing rule will make their pubs unviable.

In other industries, such as hairdressing, salon owners have said staff will be rostered for longer days and on separate teams, to prevent the potential spread of the virus. 

"In hospitality that is a bit more difficult, our hours are regulated so that we can only operate during certain times," Mr O'Donovan said.

"Friday, Saturday, Sunday are our busy days, primarily. You'd have full staff on those days, and Monday to Thursday you'd operate with a smaller number of staff," he said, adding that he had looked at varying shifts but it would be difficult to achieve. 

"What might happen is staff working in different work areas," he said. 

"Although if you have peaks and troughs, you have to be able to move staff into those areas to service the people, so there's pinch points at times. There's lunch and dinner, and the [busiest] food time would normally be between half six and nine, bar time would be nine to midnight," he said.

Benny McCabe, the owner of 15 Cork pubs, said there is not one pub in Ireland that is the same, and different venues will adapt differently to the guidelines.

"We will try to leave ours as untouched as possible, we don’t envisage wholesale changes to the physical appearance, outside the aspect of social distancing itself. We would consider some element of plexiglass at the counters if it could be done in a sympathetic and hopefully temporary manner," he said.

Table service will be feasible as the number of people allowed in the pub at any one time will have reduced.

In terms of staggered or separate shifts, he said it would be an aspiration but that the idea was up in the air as publicans were waiting to hear what government support will be offered.

"What I would like to see is two separate groups working three days one week, four days the next, with a tapered Covid payment to take us out to March 2021. This would enable the preservation of 70% of jobs, with a rapid reinstatement of the other 30% in the following nine months," he said.

"This would give great hope to all sectors, not just pubs, and I urge the new Government to provide clarity around this," he said.

On the measures already taken, Mr McCabe said that overall, the Government acted quickly. 

"In fairness, they were leading us through uncharted territory nationally and they moved quickly with the Covid-19 payment and other measures, which was rather impressive," he said.

But he said "a common-sense approach" was now needed to taper the Covid payments, and for the introduction of interest-free loans and grants to instill confidence across the economy. 

On potential closures, Mr McCabe said that reducing social distancing from two metres was key. 

"It's impossible for many to make plans, but let me be clear, two metres social distancing means less than 5% of hospitality businesses are viable, and tourism is finished," he said.

He warned that unemployment would spread across a number of areas of the economy and that there was "a clear risk of social unrest" as a result.

"The message needs to be changed and it needs to be united, it should say 'Ok, it's two metres until August, and if the numbers [go down], we envisage one metre'," he said.  

"Then businesses can go out now and plan, find the finance and grants, and start training staff. Next year we [could] review the one metre and so on. It's no good to be told a week out that it's one metre, as that will delay reopening," he said.

Mr McCabe also said that if international tourism starts back up again, social distancing in pubs or restaurants will be made meaningless due to the lack of two metres distance between plane passengers up in the air.

"When tourism resumes and you have full planes landing in Cork and Dublin, then the requirement for social distancing should be replaced with the concept of safe distancing," he said.

"Cop on, in other words. You can’t have one rule for airlines and another for hospitality," he said.

Paul Montgomery of Clancy's bar has completed a major refurbishment of his premises ahead of reopening on June 29.

"We would do a lot of food. We took a view two months ago to prepare for as early a reopening as possible," he said. 

Clancy's has installed new booths in the seating areas to keep groups of people apart.

"That's done in the old style and will create a unique atmosphere. We'll name and number booths, so people can know their favourite spots. We will be able to accommodate quite large numbers due to the subdivision," he said.

Clancy's also has a rooftop garden, kitchen upgrades and changes to the bathrooms, as well as some new paint and decoration. 

"It still has to look nice and be an enjoyable place to socialise, otherwise people will stay at home. We will still have live music as well," he adds.

Table service and pre-booking will be in operation. 

"People will want to book and to be organised, and be certain of their table," he said.

As for staffing, Mr Montgomery is hopeful he will be able to get most of his staff back to work. 

"The regulations would be very strict, particularly in the kitchen, we are waiting to hear more guidelines, which will hopefully be released [this] week, on what exactly we can and can't have," he said.

"Our staff will be coming-in in shifts. We know operationally table service is a big thing. We would have waiters, waitresses, bar staff who would serve the drinks. There's going to be a huge issue around sanitisation and when people get served, moving onto the next customer, sanitising hands and tables," he adds.

Toilets are another big issue. 

"We would have different toilets on different floors. They're going to have to be manned, or have some sort of traffic light system. Even if it is only one person at a time, if you have a women's toilet with six cubicles, you can't operate like that. It's something we'll have to figure out," he said. 

The most important thing, Mr Montgomery said, is to be able to operate in a safe manner, to put customers at ease. 

"We felt we had to accommodate people in a safe way. People won't come into the premises if it's crowded, or people are rubbing up against each other, or are able to cough and sneeze on each other," he points out.

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