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Publican Darragh McAllister on changing consumer habits: "People are still going through a transition after Covid and lockdown and with all the uncertainty in the world they haven't got into a rhythm as such."

‘Body blow’ for hospitality as Covid restrictions make an early return

THE return of Level 5 restrictions, which will force gastropubs and restaurants to close from the afternoon of December 24, has been described as “a body blow” to the sector. Fears are growing for the future viability of the hospitality industry in Clare, with a warning that many businesses will face closure in the New Year, unless government supports are stepped up.

Reaction in Clare to Tuesday’s announcement that restrictions are to be re-imposed from Christmas Eve, has ranged from resignation in the face of a third wave of Covid-19 to anger at the perceived delay in breaking the news.

“This is very disappointing and word got out through a series of Chinese whispers,” said Clare Chair of the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) Darragh McAllister. “The way that the details were leaked [last weekend] is shoddy, amateur and no way to run a country. There are huge problems now for the gastropubs in terms of all of the stock they’ve bought in for the season. The breweries and drinks suppliers have been very good in terms of taking back the stock, but that’s not going to be possible when it comes to perishable food products. Successful food pubs and restaurants have their logistics planned carefully. This situation has made planning impossible. It’s a logistical nightmare now and there will be massive, massive waste and huge costs.”

In Miltown Malbay, restauranteur and publican Tony Cogan echoed those views saying the delay in formally announcing the shut-down had created huge uncertainty.

“We’re not school children and I just hate the leaks,” he said. “We should have been told sooner. I managed to cancel my Christmas drinks orders, but it’s the perishable food that’s the problem. It’s very frustrating.”

Lahinch hotelier and former President of the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF), Michael Vaughan said that while the reimposition of restrictions was highly anticipated once Covid cases began to rise, the move was a severe setback. “It’s a body blow to the sector,” he said. “Hotels and restaurants would have been expecting good takings. The news from the UK [of a new strain of Covid] changes everything.”

Mr Vaughan warned that hospitality sector businesses are now on a knife-edge in terms of viability and desperately need increased supports and a blueprint for sustainable re-opening. “We’ve got to get a clear plan from government on getting the economy open, on a more or less permanent footing, by April,” he said. “People might be able to accept the restrictions on a basis of a firm plan. The reality is that lots of businesses now are facing tough choices in terms of the banks and other creditors. Quite a lot will go under in the New Year and the State has got to redouble its efforts.”

Mr Cogan agreed that operators were coming under huge financial pressure, despite the different supports the government had put in place.

“People who are leasing their premises are finding it really difficult at the moment,” he said. “Most landlords are looking for their rents. They majority have bills to pay or repayments to make, it’s all tied in. It’s the talk of the trade right now, unfortunately.”

The county VFI chair added that tens of thousands of workers are now facing further uncertainty about their futures. “The government has got to catch people who are at risk now and supports have to stay in place for them,” he said. “There’s massive uncertainty and fear as well as the knock-on impact when people aren’t able to pay their rent or their mortgages.”

Last Saturday, when details of the anticipated shut-down were widely circulated in the media, Mr Cogan, like restauranteurs up and down the country, began to assess their options. He had been experiencing a very brisk trade up to that point. “We obviously had reduced capacity,” he said, “and we were phenomenally busy. There was very heavy demand when we re-opened. We were fully booked for New Year’s Eve, for example, and those were among the first sets of bookings that I had to cancel. But what else can we do?”

Mr Cogan said that the fact that most of his staff are permanent means that that they qualify for the full Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP).

In Laninch, Vaughan Lodge will remain closed until Easter. “I couldn’t risk trading and at least the staff are able to get the PUP,” he said. On the positive side, there is quite a lot of interest from US golfers from next May. What we need now is to get confidence back with the prospect of the vaccine roll out. I would agree with the idea of a vaccine passport which should guarantee carte blanche to those wishing to travel.”

Under the new restrictions, restaurants and gastropubs will close at 3pm on Christmas Eve. Hairdressers and personal services will also close that day.

Hotels will be allowed to stay open for Christmas, after which they will be permitted to provide services to guests only.

Non-essential retail will be permitted shops will be asked not to hold sales. Swimming pools and gyms will remain open, for individual exercise only.

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