TUESDAY evening’s decision to keep pubs which don’t serve food, was bad news for the vast majority of rural Clare’s publicans.
Many such pubs closed for the last time during the recession and among those still standing, there are fears that Covid-19 could be the coup de grace. “You’d be afraid customers would stop coming to pubs, the whole thing could change.” warned John Quinlivan of the Honk in Newmarket on Fergus on Wednesday.
Allowing only a select few pubs to open their doors may actually be counterproductive, giving too great a concentration of people, he believes. “I think it’s actually more dangerous. We were away for a weekend and there were only two pubs that did food in this area, and everyone was gravitating to these two places and funnelling into them. Between people inside trying to come out, people trying to get in and people trying to book, there was a whole heap of people at the one spot. If there were a couple of pubs open they’d be all scattered out, I thought it was worse it made it.”
Isolation is a problem that has grown and grown in rural areas, particularly affecting middle aged men, the very demographic that are most likely to visit their local pubs.
With that social safety valve gone, John feels the problem is being exacerbated. “Another thing we’ve noticed is that it’s having a huge impact on people living on their own. Rural isolation is a huge problem in country places, they have no outlet at all, some of them, and it’s telling, you can see it on people. Aside from the pub issue Covid has left an awful mark on people and some people can’t get out at all. One man I know, he was very independent, but this has aged him a lot. He’s just one of many.”
John really misses the craic with the punters. “Oh God, you would. A pub like ours, you’d miss the company. There’s the odd one you wouldn’t miss, but that’s life!” he laughs. “In a rural pub your customers are your friends and you miss the contact.”
Over in Tulla, Neil O’Brien’s bar The Power House will be closed for a few more weeks at least.
Even if it does reopen later this year, the best months of 2020 from a publican’s perspective are past. “It’s closed since March 15 and it’s a considerable length of time, considering that the summertime is when you would probably do about 60-70% of your business. From September on things would be getting quieter, you have quieter months in October and November and for the first half of December until you get close to Christmas. In February and March trade would be lower too then it would have been in the summer and you’d have higher costs than you would have in the summertime.”
Neil appreciates that public health has to come first and says that it is very important schools do reopen. However, he also feels his pub could have opened safely. “I do believe that the pub was safe to open, I had put in place hand sanitizer dispensing units and we had gloves for everyone coming in. I had done seating arrangements for people coming into the bar, it could cater, with a two metre distance, for 60 people. Like any place in East Clare, I don’t think you’re going to see 60 people on a Saturday night, let alone from Monday to Thursday night. You are only talking about single figure numbers of people coming into a pub in East Clare midweek. If you had 10 or 12 people in a pub on a Monday or a Tuesday night they’d all be commenting on how good a trade you were doing.”
He also says awareness of the importance of social distancing and the use of PPE and handwashing is way ahead of when the pubs shut down, and this would also have helped.
Neil worries that many pubs won’t reopen now, while he says they do fill an important social function. “A lot of them (people going to pubs such as his own) would be middle aged men, some of them might be on their own, and it was kind of a community hub for want of a better word. You’d meet up, talk about the happenings of the week or matches or cattle prices or whatever the conversation would involve. That is a big loss, there hasn’t been any other facility available in Tulla or any of the East Clare communities. Matches are only starting to get going and people can’t get in to watch them. Churches are only after reopening. Outlets are at a minimum to engage and meet people. It is tough but we’ll just have to hope that if we beat this virus we can get back to a level of normality.”