A year in review: How businesses in Cork adapted to rolling lockdowns and closures

A year in review: How businesses in Cork adapted to rolling lockdowns and closures

In what has been an unprecedented and uncertain time for businesses in Cork, Breda Graham takes a look back at a tumultuous year for retailers and business owners.

In what has been an unprecedented and uncertain time for businesses in Cork, Breda Graham takes a look back at a tumultuous year for retailers and business owners

AS cases of Covid-19 in Ireland rose in mid-March, some businesses made the decision to close their doors following the Government’s appeal to the public to minimise social contact to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Vienna Woods became the first city hotel to close before pubs and bars across the country were ordered to close as 40 new cases were confirmed, bringing the total number of cases in Ireland to 169.

Michael Magner, owner Vienna Woods Hotel in Glanmire.Picture: Howard Crowdy
Michael Magner, owner Vienna Woods Hotel in Glanmire.Picture: Howard Crowdy

Then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced there would be further restrictions put in place on a “St Patrick's Day like no other”. He acknowledged the impact on the economy and livelihoods and promised support would be put in place.

A handful of businesses decided to remain open for as long as they could but the usually bustling streets of Cork city became still and quiet before further restrictions were announced on March 27, with all non-essential businesses closing their doors.

An empty Carey's Lane in early 2020 as businesses lining the street shut their doors under Government restrictions. Photo credit: Breda Graham.
An empty Carey's Lane in early 2020 as businesses lining the street shut their doors under Government restrictions. Photo credit: Breda Graham.

The Restart Grant, a form of direct grant aid offered to small businesses in order to help them with the costs associated with reopening, was announced.

Debenhams went into liquidation which saw workers on the picket line in Cork calling for backing from the Government to intervene to save their jobs and the wider retail sector.

x-Debenhams workers held a protest outside the Patrick Street store. Picture: Andy Gibson.
x-Debenhams workers held a protest outside the Patrick Street store. Picture: Andy Gibson.

The Government’s Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business to ease Covid-19 restrictions and reopen the country’s economy and society in a phased manner saw the reopening of many Cork businesses on May 18, after two months of closure.

The roadmap included a total of five phases allowing for the unlocking of restrictions at three week intervals over the summer months.

Front page of The Echo on May 18.
Front page of The Echo on May 18.

Phase two came into effect on June 8, phase three on June 29, phase four was due to come into effect on July 20, but the roadmap was later accelerated seeing all remaining businesses with the exception of pubs reopen in June.

June saw a lively atmosphere return to Cork city, as more businesses reopened their doors under phase two of the Government’s roadmap which advised that small non-essential retailers may reopen along with larger retail stores that have street entrances.

Businesses working in the hospitality sector in Cork welcomed the publication of new guidance from Fáilte Ireland, providing detailed advice for those planning to reopen.

Laura Sureda, co-owner, (left) and Sarah Fitzgerald, restaurant manager, The SpitJack, which reopened with perspex screens for restaurant table service in accordance with guidelines at Washington Street. Picture Denis Minihane.
Laura Sureda, co-owner, (left) and Sarah Fitzgerald, restaurant manager, The SpitJack, which reopened with perspex screens for restaurant table service in accordance with guidelines at Washington Street. Picture Denis Minihane.

Meanwhile, businesses that had reopened across County Cork sought support in record numbers with a total of 1,300 businesses making online applications for the Restart Grant.

City Hall confirmed there would be a waiver on fees for street furniture in the city and by the end of June, the hospitality sector reopened with Cork’s most-loved restaurant, cafés and bars bringing life back into the city.

Front page of The Echo on June 30.
Front page of The Echo on June 30.

In a fast-tracking of the restrictions, museums, galleries, theatres, concert halls and other cultural outlets also reopened, as well cinemas, music venues, leisure facilities, bingo halls, arcades, amusement parks, religious buildings, indoor gyms and exercise facilities.

On July 15, phase four of the new fast tracked roadmap of the easing of restrictions was postponed until August 10 with pubs remaining closed.

The following week, the Government launched a €7.4 billion July Jobs Stimulus package to boost economic recovery with the PUP and TWSS extended until April 2021.

Tourism operators raised concern for their businesses with the popular Titanic Trail walking tours in Cobh suffering the biggest loss of cancellations in its 22 years of operating due to the loss of the American market.

Dr. Michael Martin, author and creator of the Titanic Trail in Cobh, Co. Cork, pictured in Cobh.
Dr. Michael Martin, author and creator of the Titanic Trail in Cobh, Co. Cork, pictured in Cobh.

In early August, it was decided that the country would not enter phase four and business and those in the hospitality industry were further hit with new guidelines.

By mid-August the Government moved away from the roadmap to reopening the country and adopted a five-level system planned by NPHET. The National Framework for Living with Covid-19 consisted of five levels which informed the country of what restrictions to follow at each different level.

Later in the year, Ireland moved to a medium-term approach to managing and repairing damage that Covid had inflicted on society under a newly named Resilience and Recovery 2020 - 2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19.

West Cork businesses suffered the effects of serious flooding which saw a lot of work needed to rectify the damage that waters reaching the height of window sills in some premises caused.

Front page of The Echo on August 21.
Front page of The Echo on August 21.

Level 3 restrictions were announced in early October with indoor dining banned. The move was met with criticism from local restaurateurs before the country moved to Level 5 restrictions in mid-October.

Not only were Cork retailers met with the shock of the decision but some were also met with flood damage after the heavy flooding of the city.

 The civil defence working with shop owners on Winthrop Street in Cork after early morning flooding. Picture Dan Linehan
The civil defence working with shop owners on Winthrop Street in Cork after early morning flooding. Picture Dan Linehan

The country then took a phased approach to Level 3 in December with Cork’s non-essential retailers, hairdressers, gyms, and galleries, restaurants and hotels reopening, but it was short lived as the new UK variant was confirmed in Ireland and Level 5 was implemented on Christmas Eve.

Front page of The Echo on December 1.
Front page of The Echo on December 1.

A full lockdown was announced on December 30 with businesses faced with another year of uncertainty as wave three of Covid-19 in Ireland continues to see a surge in Covid-related deaths.

President of the Cork Business Association (CBA) Eoin O’Sullivan, said that his role which under normal circumstances would be mostly ceremonial, saw him “fighting tooth and nail for supports on an ongoing basis” as the CBA became “extremely active with members of Cabinet and Cork City Council”.

Cork Business Association President, Eoin O'Sullivan, at M&P O'Sullivan, Sarsfield Road, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Cork Business Association President, Eoin O'Sullivan, at M&P O'Sullivan, Sarsfield Road, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

Successful initiatives such as Eat on the Street which saw footfall return to the city spawned from the CBA’s communicating with the council on how best to adapt and see businesses continue to trade.

Cork city bucked the trend nationally. The city was buzzing. Where normally people flock to the coast, in the summer people were staying in the city and supporting local businesses.

Mr O’Sullivan said it was a “completely different year for businesses where people had to think outside the box to survive”.

“It was a year where everybody in business had to adapt and change their business model and the true entrepreneur and business person will survive and come out the other side and I genuinely think there'll be a different breed of business person after surviving this. 

The eat on the street initiative saw Princes Street lined with tables and chairs for outdoor dining. Photo Joleen Cronin
The eat on the street initiative saw Princes Street lined with tables and chairs for outdoor dining. Photo Joleen Cronin

"This year saw the survival of businesses, as well as adapting and working together,” he said.

He said that the CBA will continue to focus on supporting its members by continuing to communicate with the Government and City Council as a “unified voice for members and traders in the city”.

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