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Children’s play-centre sector ‘in crisis’

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A LONG WAIT Staff at the Wild West Play Centre in Westport were pictured for a feature in The Mayo News when the centre reopened last July. The popular venue has been closed since last October.

Westport play-centre owner says many centres ‘do not have the finance to stay alive’


Oisín McGovern

THE owner of a Westport children’s play centre says the sector is ‘in crisis’ after 14 months of closure.
Tommy Gill, owner of the Wild West Play Centre on Altamount Street and CEO of Play Activity Leisure Ireland (PALI), says many play centres are at risk of permanent closure.
Despite pubs and restaurants having opened indoors for the fully vaccinated, play centres, bowling alleys and indoor summer camps remain closed due to Covid-19 restrictions.
“Many centres do not have the finance to stay alive, despite Government supports,” said Mr Gill. “It is difficult to manage debt when your business is closed for nearly 17 months. Over 54 percent of our members’ landlords are demanding full rent arrears, increasing the current rent, and even giving notices to terminate the rental agreement.
“We also have some very understanding landlords, but there are significant debts warehoused. Without an opening date and financial support some businesses will not be viable and will close with the loss of jobs and more importantly the loss of family recreation centres.
“These facilities will be so important to get children back to some kind of normality playing together, socialising birthday parties and play dates.
“Insurance is not a switch on-switch off policy, and most members have paid full premiums even though they are closed.”

Closed since October
While he added it was ‘great’ to see pubs open, Gill believes not having access to play centres ‘forces’ children into pubs rather than bowling alleys or play centres.
Under regulation 12 of the Health Act, it appears bowling alleys, soft-play areas and amusement arcades fall under the same category as nightclubs, which are currently closed
Speaking to The Mayo News, Gill said such businesses as play centres and bowling alleys have been given no safety guidelines and no date for reopening.
“We’ve been closed since October last year. In the first lockdown we were classified as bars, so we could open with swimming pools and leisure centres,” he explained.
“When the negotiations went on a couple of weeks ago, we were left out of the negotiations and we are still closed.
“We’re constantly asking [Tánaiste] Leo Varadkar, [Taoiseach] Micheál Martin and [Minister] Catherine Martin for a meeting just to discuss what we can do,” he added.
“We have all the guidelines in place, we had them in place last year and they are higher than a lot of industries because we are dealing with the safety of kids. But we can’t discuss it if we can’t get to the table.”
‘30 calls a day’
When allowed to operate last year, play centres that did reopen, such as The Wild West, did so with social distancing, pre-booking and other sanitisation measures in place.
Gill says the play centre industry, along with bowling alleys and amusement arcades, have been ‘just forgotten about’ during the pandemic.
He added that he is currently receiving ‘up to 30 calls a day’ from parents wondering if their centre is open.
“Westport is a family-oriented tourist town. It’s getting a lot of families,” he explains.
“If it’s raining there’s nothing for two to ten year olds, which is our niche market.”
Gill, who has run The Wild West with his wife, Tish, since December 2019, has also had to close the centre’s sensory room, which was frequently used by children with special needs.
“There’s quite a number in the Mayo area that would’ve come to use that facility one-to-one.
“That closed by default because the whole place is closed,” says Gill.
“We have a Mayo Autism group outside Castlebar who would come to us quite a lot, that section of society cannot come. I think that’s unfair.”

3011 MPU