Anger is rising in the outdoor activity industry, which includes adventure centres and businesses engaged in activities such as kayaking and surfing, that the State’s €80 million-per-week Covid Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS) will only support businesses operating indoors.
The scheme pays businesses up to 10 per cent of average weekly turnover during periods of restrictions, but representatives of the outdoors sector claim excluding their businesses contradicts the State’s current public health objective to support more activity outdoors – the coronavirus is proven to spread more easily in enclosed spaces.
Ireland's Association of Adventure Tourism (IAAT), a trade body with 240 member businesses in a sector that employs 7,500, is due to meet Catherine Martin, the Minister for Tourism, on Tuesday, when the matter will be raised. It is also due to hold talks with Damien English, Minister of State at the Department of Finance, to press its case.
Revenue blames the exclusion policy on the department and says it will continue to deny financial support to outdoors businesses affected by the restrictions.
"What exactly is the rationale for excluding businesses that, by their very nature, must deliver services outdoors?" said Brendan Kenny, IAAT's chief executive. "Try as we might, you can't do something like kayaking indoors with no water. These businesses are affected by the anti-virus restrictions the same as everyone else, but they are not able to access the same supports. There is no financial logic to this."
The CRSS scheme was announced in Budget 2021 by Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, who said it was for "business premises where the Government restrictions directly prohibit or restrict access by customers". It applies during Level 3, 4 and 5 restrictions, and the State's total outlay is estimated at about €40 million per week in Level 3 and €80 million in Level 5. Hotels can apply but campsites cannot because they have no "premises".
Outdoors activities are permitted to continue in Level 3 and 4, and gatherings of up to 15 people can occur, but they are effectively prohibited in Level 5. Mr Kenny said his members were completely excluded from accessing support for the six weeks of Level 5 that ended this month. He acknowledged that while some outdoors activity can take place in Levels 3 and 4, this is nullified by inter-county travel bans and the closure of tourism generally. He says outdoors businesses cannot operate normally under the Level 3 conditions that are likely to be in place after Christmas.
Outdoors businesses have begun to appeal Revenue decisions on the matter. For example, the Killary Adventure Centre in Galway was recently refused CRSS support. “It is not sufficient that the trade of a business has been impacted because of a reduction in customer demand as a consequence of Covid-19,” Revenue told the business.
Killary was told it is ineligible for support for its core adventure business, but it may receive some support for the accommodation component of its trade, because the customers sleep indoors.
“We have to let the outdoors in. These businesses can’t just sit around until March without support or we will lose them and their staff. If they can’t access CRSS, it is imperative that they receive alternative support,” said Mr Kenny.
He said there was a “perception” among officials that his members can just avoid costs all winter by “hibernating”.
“But that just isn’t true. They still have costs. You can’t just store the surfboards under the bed until next year and take them out then and start all over again.”
Revenue’s official guidelines for CRSS state that is limited to businesses that operate from a “fixed physical structure, and it specifically excludes stalls, vans, trucks and also activities such as camping.