IRELAND’S so-called wet pubs – those who do not serve food as part of their offering – have endured the longest lockdown across the European Union and are the only significant part of Irish business and society that the public health authorities here have held back on opening. They were being ultra-cautious about letting the pubs re-open, and perhaps understandably so, given so many Irish people’s fondness for drinking to excess, which leads to people forgetting about observing social distancing and other recommendations to avoid spreading the Covid-19 virus.
After much lobbying by the drinks industry, Monday, September 21st, has been designated as the day the wet pubs will be allowed to re-open, subject to several restrictions and, of course, how well the virus is being kept in check at that stage. It will always have to be a case of public health and safety first and foremost.
Recently, we saw images of drunken people on Killarney’s main street, behaving in a rowdy and even threatening manner, and blatantly ignoring all public health advice, potentially putting their own safety and that of their families – especially elderly relatives – at risk of contracting the virus. Kerry TD, Danny Healy Rae contended that, if all the pubs were allowed to re-open, then people would not have been congregating like that on the streets.
It is likely that many of them had got the booze to fuel their antics from off-licences and should have been prevented from consuming it on the streets. It is arguable that, even if all the pubs had been open, there would have been enough room to fit all the people that were on the street in a properly socially-distanced manner.
Popular visitor centres such as Killarney have always had the challenge of catering for large visitor numbers and it is even more difficult to do so now with the current shortage of pub capacity and the necessary public health regulations to be observed. However, the majority of the 3,500 wet pubs still closed are in smaller towns and villages across rural Ireland, and the smaller the place, the more important the pub is as a social outlet, especially in remote areas.
The €16m government aid package announced recently to help publicans who have been affected by this protracted lockdown does not seem anywhere near adequate enough to compensate them for their losses – this weekend marks exactly six months since the pubs were shut down – and it may be that some of the publicans affected may not find it worth their while to re-open on the 21st, especially if it means they have to refuse entry to regulars due to social distancing requirements. However, at this stage, regulars at pubs should understand the necessity of having to book tables and time slots just to get back in for the pleasure of sociable drinking and conversation; better to have an hour and three quarters of it than nothing at all, as has been the case for the wet pubs since last March.
As regards the pubs that are already open and serving food – or are supposed to be – those who flout the regulations deserve to be sanctioned for doing so. The new laws passed last week that give An Gárda Síochána the legal powers to enforce these regulations are to be welcomed and Minister for Justice Helen McEntee intimated that they would ‘pave the way for wet pubs to re-open.’
Even Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was of the view that pubs should be given a chance to re-open and to prove that they can operate safely. A lot of it will be down to customer behaviour when they do and people should not be putting pressure on publicans to flout public health regulations, as everybody is going to end up losing out, especially if they become the cause of spreading the Covid-19 virus.
With the exception of Romania, where pubs can only open where they have an outdoor terrace to serve alcohol, pubs all across Europe have been open all summer, even in some of the countries where the pandemic has hit hardest, including Spain, the United Kingdom and Italy. On the Continent, people tend to drink more sensibly – and a lot less than here – and generally consume alcohol when having food; there is no rushing to pack in as many drinks as possible before closing time looms as if the end of the world was nigh!
The publicans have an incentive to behave responsibly; after all, it is their livelihoods that are at stake. The government has now clearly defined the pathway to re-opening and this is welcome news and we hope people will enjoy their alcohol responsibly.