Here we go again

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CHRISTMAS WITH A DIFFERENCE Despite most of the adult population being vaccinated, Christmas 2021 will be far removed from normality, and fears are growing that the Government and NPHET will impose more restrictions on the hospitality sector. Pic: istock

Latest restrictions bring further uncertainty for pubs and clubs this Christmas season


Analysis
Anton McNulty

This time last year, the front page of The Mayo News carried a warning from a senior medic involved in the battle against Covid: Prepare for a different Christmas. Twelve months on, and it appears that history is repeating itself. Uncertainty surrounds what people can expect in the next few weeks as the festive season approaches.
Last November, the end of the pandemic seemed in sight with successive vaccine trials and the roll-out of jabs just around the corner. With that in mind, Dr Gillian Chambers – the Clinical Lead for the Covid-19 Testing Programme in Mayo at the time – warned against increased social activity in December:
“Unfortunately, the virus doesn’t know what time of the year it is, or how much we need a Christmas after the year we’ve had. This year we are really going to have to risk assess every situation we may encounter over Christmas,” she told The Mayo News.
Twelve months ago, the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin decided to open up in the hope of a normal Christmas, only to make a last minute U-turn as numbers started to grow, and pubs and restaurants were closed on Christmas Eve.
Last Tuesday, Martin again took to the steps of Government buildings. He announced new guidelines restricting opening hours for nightclubs and late bars. For many in the hospitality business, there was a sense of déjà vu.
Publican John Nevin’s initial reaction was ‘Here we go again’. The proprietor of the popular Nevin’s Newfield Inn in Tiernaur had just reopened the pub after a ten-day break. He told The Mayo News that it was ‘not the greatest news’ to receive just as they were preparing for what was supposed to be a busy Christmas season.
“We expected some bookings to be coming in the next week or so, but generally when the vibes like this come from the Government you see things slowing down. We will still go ahead with our entertainment, but it [the new restrictions] will put people on their guard and stop people coming out and will have a negative impact on business. We don’t mind, but the main thing is not to go into a full lockdown,” he told The Mayo News.

‘Big shock’
The main casualty of the latest restrictions is the nightlife sector, particularly night clubs and late bars, and hotels that cater for weddings and functions. They may not be closed, but for many they may as well be, as their customers have to be off their premises by 12 midnight – a time when many late-night venues are just starting to bring people through their doors.
Large nightclubs, such as the famous Copper Face Jacks in Dublin, have decided to open earlier, but most don’t have that option. The Castle Late Night Venue in Westport, which is one of the most popular clubs in Mayo, announced on its Facebook page that it will close for the duration.
“Given the current circumstances we feel this is the correct decision for the health and wellbeing of everyone that would be in attendance. It is unfortunate and may come as an inconvenience, however these precautions are necessary to ensure we don’t put anyone at any undue risk,” the statement wrote.
The nightclubs and late bars had only got back up and running at the beginning of October. According to Joe O’Malley of Cosy Joe’s, which operates as a late bar in Westport, the operation was working well. He was surprised by the Taoiseach’s announcement.
“I certainly wasn’t expecting it, because there was no mention of it until it was announced. I was listening in the morning to all the reporters and there was no mention of it, they were all talking about the antigen testing and bringing in the Covid certs for different businesses.
“Then this came out of the blue, so it was a big shock. But we have been used to shocks for the last two years. Our industry seems to be getting a lot of them,” he said.

‘Bitter pill’
O’Malley said that he could be angry at the Government for the sudden U-turn, but he and many others in the industry understand that the numbers are serious, and that they all have to play their part in ensuring there isn’t a full lockdown.
He explained the Covid passport checks have worked well in Westport, but he believes they might not have been as stringent elsewhere.
“People are very conscious when they are going out that the place they are going is a safe place and that proper checks are being done. Once they know the initial guidelines are followed and they see people being checked at the door, you can see them relax a little when they get inside. The new restrictions are much the same, other than the time that has been brought forward.
“I was in Dublin last week, and it is totally different up there. I was in a few cafés, and I was not asked for anything, not even for contract tracing. I left it again, because I felt uncomfortable.
“We seem to be doing a lot right down here, and we are being punished for people who are not doing it right. That is the bitter pill to take.”
Joe also owns the Porter House pub on Westport’s Bridge Street, and he says he has noticed a change in the pub culture since the pandemic hit almost two years ago. He believes the pub sector will continue to adapt to changes, but the also feels that his sector should not have to take the full brunt of restrictions.
“We are well fit to implement these regulations in accordance with the guidelines, and we can adapt pretty quickly, but it would be nicer if it was also applied to a wider sector rather than just the hospitality sector.
“It seems like it is just the bars and nightclubs which are being targeted. You can go to matches at the weekend with 40,000 or 50,000 people at them without having to show anything, and you are asking yourself, ‘Why is the pub always being targeted?’.
“I could give out like mad, but the Government has to deal with a lot of challenges. We get the short end of the stick, but we know that and we have to get on with it. It is very hard for hospitality, but we have to soldier on.”

Realistic
John Nevin didn’t see the latest restrictions coming, and he says you’d need a crystal ball to predict what the next few weeks will bring will. Still, he is confident enough to predict that things are not going to get any better for the industry this side of Christmas. All will depend on how the health authorities deal with increasing Covid-19 cases.
“I think we’ll be lucky if this is the way it will be kept for the rest of the year. If we can keep the numbers right and continue as [with the restrictions] they have left us with now, I think that is as good as it will get for us.
“If I was a betting man, I wouldn’t be betting that we will be open in full swing again by Christmas. You never know, two or three weeks may bring a lot of changes, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath. Enjoy what we have now; at least we are open.”