DOUBLE TROUBLE Belmullet businessman Enda Brogan has had to close one of his businesses in the town but is putting the safety of his staff and customers first during the Covid-19 crisis. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
While restrictions are a major blow to Belmullet, businesses say saving lives is the main priority
On March 14, eleven years after opening the Gateway Leisure, Enda Brogan was forced to close it due to the Covid-19 restrictions. He also had to let go of 30 staff at the indoor entertainment complex, which lies on the outskirts of Belmullet town.
The venue includes ten-pin bowling, a restaurant, bar, pool tables and one of Ireland’s largest activity play frames. It was always an ambitious project for the town, especially as it opened during the height of a crippling economic recession.
For the past decade, the business has thrived in a competitive market. The next two months should have been one of its busiest periods, with lots of groups booked in for Communion and Confirmation parties.
“It is tough, and it saddens me to go in there and not see it in the glory it should be in, with kids running around, having fun and enjoying themselves,” Enda told The Mayo News.
With the Atlantic Ocean to its west and the Nephin Mountain Range to its east, Belmullet has always been naturally isolated from the rest of the county. With poor infrastructure investment in the region, it has traditionally been a struggle to encourage people to visit the area. However, in the last 30 years, the Gaeltacht town has transformed itself.
Thanks to tourist touchstones like the Gateway, the Broadhaven Bay Hotel and Áras Inis Gluaire, the town has punched above its weight and it now has facilities to rival the larger towns.
But since the Covid-19 restrictions were put in place, these venues have stood empty – and now, in these strange times, Belmullet hopes that its location will help protect it.
“We usually give out about our location, saying it is a disadvantage. And it is in normal times when doing business. But in this case, we are blessed to live in Erris by being naturally isolated,” Damien Langan, chairperson of the Erris Chamber of Commerce, told The Mayo News.
With the majority of local businesses closed, including his own garden centre and home store, Damien described the atmosphere in the town as sombre. Now, as lockdown drags on longer, businesses are getting nervous.
“There is no end in sight,” Damien explained. “There is a lot of uncertainty. It is not like saying we will be shut for a few weeks and that will be it. The worry is that once the money starts drying up the cheques and direct debits will start bouncing.
“This is unprecedented. We have never seen anything like this before. Some people think you can press pause on your business, but some will not open again after this.”
The lock-down could not have come at a worse time for Damien’s business, as this would be one of his busiest times with people beginning to get their garden back in shape after a long winter. Despite that, somewhat surprisingly, he says he was glad when the Government called for businesses to close.
“I was thinking that by being open were we being part of the problem. I’m glad they closed us down. You can take precautions, but your staff and everyone else are worried when people come in, because you have to assume everyone has it [coronavirus].
“The Government are not doing a bad job. We seem to be learning from other countries, but people need to not get complacent and instead just stay at home. If you do that and stick to the rules, there is a chance we might come out of this not too bad, but when you see places like Italy and Spain it is worrying.”
As well as owning the Gateway Leisure, Enda Brogan also runs the Eurospar Supermarket, a builders’ and agri providers in Belmullet and a hardware store in Bangor Erris. He says he has never been busier. He has lost staff who, for personal reasons, cannot risk getting the virus, and he has had to make major changes to the business to ensure his remaining his staff are safe and deliveries can be made.
With construction work almost non-existent since the closedown, priorities have been placed on getting feed and farm supplies out, as well as delivering groceries to vulnerable people in the community.
Having to deliver to people scattered over a vast area has Enda put to the pin of his collar logistically, but the community has responded and Belmullet GAA Club members are helping with deliveries.
When he spoke to The Mayo News, Enda had just made a delivery to Blacksod. On the journey, he saw nobody apart from two young people sitting on a wall.
“At the moment, we have three vans and three trucks along with the GAA supporting us with another four or five vehicles. They don’t want anything for it, but I have committed that when some normality comes to this we will make a contribution to the club to show our appreciation,” Enda said, adding that their attitude has been ‘brilliant’.
“I am covering an area around the size of Co Louth. It is a fair sweep of an area to cover every single day of the week. Regardless of what you order or how much you order, we will guarantee you get it. It would be absolutely impossible to get all the deliveries out [without help], but it is a magnificent community like it always is in this neck of the woods.
“We are trying our best to keep people at home. The majority of people in the community are adhering to the guidelines, but there is still an element who think they are bulletproof. We still see a lot of the older community out and about. We are constantly explaining that they just need to phone us. We will see our surge [in Covid-19 cases] when it gets here and people do need to take it more seriously than they are.
“Everyone is learning on a day-to-day basis, and thanks be to God I can pick up the phone to the local Garda station to ask for some guidance, and they are giving it on what we should and shouldn’t do. It is about working together on this it is not about pulling apart. All the help you get from the community is a sign of that.”
As well as keeping the businesses ticking over, Enda is also the father of two young children. With his wife also involved in the family business, he jokes that they are also filling in as teachers and entertainers at the same time.
One of the main issues affecting closed businesses is the reluctance of some insurance companies to pay out for business interruption. Enda is a member of PALI (Play Activity Lesiure Ireland), a group that represents play centres struggling with insurance issues, and knows of a number of centres who will struggle to reopen.
Having seen his insurance premium rise by 350 percent in November, Enda is not confident the insurance companies will ‘behave ethically’.
“I am getting no joy whatsoever [from my insurance company]. They are very difficult to deal with and not very accommodating at this time. Even though you have business interruption on your policy, the insurance companies are turning a blind eye to it as they always do.
“My main concern is I have a hardware store in Bangor Erris, a builders’ providers in Belmullet, I have Expert Electrical in Belmullet and a Eurospar in Belmullet, all of which I have to look after.
“Whatever decisions I have to make to ensure they are successful and carry on I’ll make. I’d be confident we will open again, and will do everything in our power to ensure the Gateway reopens again because it is a huge assest to the area. However to reopen again we need co-operation.”
Local TD Rose Conway-Walsh said the Covid-19 crisis has affected all sectors of society in the region and she wants measures in place that will allow businesses to reopen after the crisis is over.
“I want to see rates for businesses waived rather than put on hold, and we need to revert to a VAT rate of 9 percent in hospitality sector on a temporary basis, to be reviewed at a later date.
“The [businesses will] struggle to reopen and we need to do everything we can to ensure that they do reopen and are not crucified by a backlog of costs, such as rates. They will have missed out on their income for Easter, which would normally be busy, and that needs to be taken into account. We need these businesses to be viable going forward and not crucified with cash-flow problems,” she said.
Both Damien and Enda believe that the lack of certainty regarding how long the restriction measures will be in place for is the most concerning aspect of the crisis, not just for businesses but for the community at large. However, they are confident that the town and Erris will bounce back when that time comes, and that people will realise the value of local businesses.
“If there is any place in the world that can recover it is Belmullet because it is a fantastic place to be and there is a great energy around the place,” Enda observed.
“But people’s attitudes towards supporting local economies, local produce and local jobs will be fundamentally the most important part of that recovery.”