Hospitality should hope for the best but prepare for the worst

For nightclubs and music venues, the financial risk of a delay to reopening is most acute

 We are no longer entering the lengthening, bright days of May or June. An outdoors summer was always going to be a bit of a Hail Mary in this State. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

We are no longer entering the lengthening, bright days of May or June. An outdoors summer was always going to be a bit of a Hail Mary in this State. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

 

The sudden shift in mood among State officials and harried business owners over the deteriorating trajectory of virus infection rates and hospitalisations is the reminder none of us needed that Covid-19 hasn’t gone away. We know.

But what is the appropriate response? It must be measured and calm, but it also needs to be appropriate to the scale of the threat, which at this stage is unclear. Therein lies the difficulty for all.

The timing of the deterioration could hardly be worse for some sections of the economy, especially hospitality and the live events sector. In seven days, almost every public health restriction is due to be ditched, including the revenue-chewing capacity restraints that keep many operators hooked on public subsidies to survive. October 22nd was being pencilled in as the day the hospitality sector turns a new page, and preparations were underway on stock and staffing levels.

Recent personal experience suggests to me that many operators in the hospitality industry have not been taking major chances

At this moment, with cases numbers rising from a high base and test positivity rates also increasing, it is possible that a full reopening may no longer happen. Businesses should prepare for a delay, regardless of whether or not they feel such caution would be justified.

Over the past 10 months there has been one point of stability in the fight against coronavirus – the Government tends to err on the side of caution with the hospitality and entertainment sectors. This has become ingrained in its approach and it is unlikely to change now, heading into winter with high virus rates, and reminders of past mistakes.

Only in schools is the State willing to take calculated chances in the name of pragmatism.

Recent personal experience suggests to me that many operators in the hospitality industry have not been taking major chances, either. I ventured to Killarney as September slipped into October, offices began to reopen and roads became busier with traffic. En route, I stopped for a break in Adare, Co Limerick, in Aunty Lena’s bar, part of Charlie Chawke’s group.

I had just returned from a short trip to Italy, where I hadn’t once been asked to produce my European Union Covid certificate. But the waitress at Aunty Lena’s politely held me at the door while I fumbled in my iPhone for my State permission slip to come inside for a steak sandwich.

She was busy and her attention was required elsewhere. It would have been easier for her to say, “Ah, just go on”, but she waited until I found it, she checked my details and then recorded my name and contact number.

My companion, who normally resides abroad, also had his vaccination pass checked, which he found unusual compared to where he normally resides, but also reassuring. When we arrived in Killarney, we both noticed how assiduous the restaurants and bars in the normally bustling Kerry town were in asking us for the vaccine pass. It happened without fail each time.

From the State’s point of view, the real purpose of the pass now is as a coercive tool of inconvenience to convince the unvaccinated to take a jab

Anecdotes are no substitute for data and others may have had a different experience to mine. But the routines we encountered around the implementation of that particular restriction suggested it had become the norm.

As virus numbers grow among those people who have exercised their choice not to be vaccinated, the retention of the Covid pass for hospitality may be the most likely Government deviation from what was planned on October 22nd, when their use for all but travel is slated to be discontinued.

From the State’s point of view, the real purpose of the pass now is as a coercive tool of inconvenience to convince the unvaccinated to take a jab. A little coercion for access to the riskiest parts of the private economy can be justified to meet a public health goal, as long as it is proportionate.

The timing of the increase in Irish infection rates suggests the U-turn’s origins can be traced back to the gradual return of workers to offices at the end of September. Internationally, vaccine mandates (proven through a pass) are being tightened for workers. In the US, which views itself as a bastion of personal freedoms, the federal government under president Joe Biden is going to require vaccines or regular tests to enter many workplaces. In New York, some city workers can even be fired for refusing a vaccine.

But in the US only 57 per cent of the total population is fully vaccinated. The mandates there are designed to address this issue. Ireland has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, at almost 75 per cent of the total population. Among eligible adults, the vaccination rate is nine-in-10.

Beyond making vaccinations a legal requirement for everybody, which would be a crystal clear overreach of Government, a hit rate of 90 per cent for a voluntary medical intervention is about as good as it is going to get.

An outdoors winter would be mostly a fallacy for the Irish hospitality sector and all but the hardiest of its customers

Ireland should not tighten vaccine rules or extend the Covid pass any further than it has already been deployed. Not because nobody wants the unvaccinated to change their minds but because it is unlikely to have much of a positive effect, which is crucial to justify it. Otherwise, it would just seem like punishment.

Nobody needs a vaccine pass to dine outdoors, of course. But look out the nearest window. We are no longer entering the lengthening, bright days of May or June. An outdoors summer was always going to be a bit of a Hail Mary in this State, but it was still feasible and it worked a treat in July.

An outdoors winter would be mostly a fallacy for the Irish hospitality sector and all but the hardiest of its customers. When the industry lobbies about the difficulties operators faces on this point, it is not making it up.

Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath was clearly relying on the positive impact of the October 22nd lifting of restrictions when he was calibrating the extent of financial supports in his Budget 2022 speech on Tuesday. Already, there is a chance that those supports may not be enough if the tide turns, illustrating just how quickly the situation can change.

For nightclubs and live music venues, the financial risk of a delay to reopening is most acute. Here’s hoping that the numbers of those ill with Covid-19 in hospital don’t deteriorate too much, and that the rest of us have justifiable cause to collectively hold our nerve, and all can reopen.

But it may be more profitable for businesses in the riskiest parts of the economy to prepare for the worst, while still hoping for the best.

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