We need a mindset shift to build an outdoors fun economy for summer

Bureaucracy must be flung out the window to facilitate hospitality and trading outdoors

Seating on Blackrock main street in Dublin last September. We all understand that there is an official desire to reduce public movement of any kind, but at some stage scientific optimality has to give way to common sense

Seating on Blackrock main street in Dublin last September. We all understand that there is an official desire to reduce public movement of any kind, but at some stage scientific optimality has to give way to common sense

 

We have already been warned by public health officials. It will have to be an “outdoors summer” this year in Ireland.

For that we need to quickly build an extensive outdoors economy. Hospitality and entertainment operators, certain types of retailers, casual traders, infrastructure and equipment suppliers, State agencies and local authorities will all need to work together to make this happen.

It must be done at speed, and the normal procedures for facilitating outdoor trading cannot be expected to apply.

For once in this country bureaucracy and the stultifying yoke of officialdom must be flung out the window where they belong. This is a different kind of year that requires a different mindset.

Restaurants, bars and cafes must be allowed to colonise parts of footpaths near their premises, onstreet car-parking spaces and nearby laneways with the minimum of fuss. Do first, ask for permission later.

Town and village squares and city parks should be actively turned over to arts and entertainment operators, festival organisers, casual traders, food trucks and retail stall-owners.

If local authorities are prepared to erect open marquees and canopies to protect them from our moody weather, then all the better.

Grudging facilitation by local authorities of this creative chaos will not be enough. It is bound to get a bit messy. But anyone with a logical idea for an outdoor trading venture must be made to feel welcome and encouraged by policymakers, and that may require an extensive public communications campaign.

Entire streets in the commercial hearts of towns and cities that are even vaguely suitable for pedestrianisation and casual trading must be designated as such for the summer, even if it just a temporary measure for a few months.

Car parks, waterside areas, playing fields – they all should be allowed to be used for casual hospitality and retail trading if there is demand in a local area.

Insolvency

Critics and naysayer and the usual not-in-my-backyarders ought to be pleaded with to give over, just this once, as an act of grace towards the hospitality and retail operators who have been driven to the point of insolvency in favour of public health imperatives and the national interest. Bye-laws should be bypassed and ways must be found to allow their entrepreneurial ideas to be realised.

If, as expected, most of us do not leave this island this year after being cooped up in our homes for almost the entire winter and early spring, there will be a throbbing mass of pent-up demand in coming months for outdoor entertainment, interaction and fun of any kind.

Once the vaccine rollout kicks in with reduced infection rates and hospitalisations – and the evidence from Israel and elsewhere is, unequivocally, that this is bound to happen and soon – then we must be let loose as the risks fall.

Facilitation of all of this hastily planned and erected unruly outdoors commerce does not require some sort of czar or official hand to oversee it. It doesn’t need a policy document, or a legislative approach or a public consultation to smooth out the rough edges of an official idea.

It simply requires an officially approved mentality change that this year Ireland is simply going to have to wing it a little bit, and minor rules shouldn’t be allowed to become a barrier.

It needs a nod from above. Taoiseach Micheál Martin or Tánaiste Leo Varadkar could provide this with a single well-judged statement.

Ever since this pandemic began the public and the State have at various times displayed curious attitudes towards congregation outdoors. It isn’t risk-free, and medical experts tell us the new more easily transmissible British variant of the virus makes it a little riskier than before. But the safety of the outdoors compared to poorly ventilated indoor settings is still as night is to day.

Take, as an example, the baffling public evisceration this week, unwisely encouraged by some senior politicians, of those University of Limerick students who were caught partying outdoors.

Their behaviour may have been disrespectful to their neighbours and some of it was clearly bawdy. But was it really the potential virus super-spreading event that its critics claimed? Even the DCU public health academic and high-profile zero-Covid advocate Anthony Staines was telling people on social media to calm down.

Attitudes

We saw the same anxiety-driven attitudes last September when Senators were calling for the Army to be brought in to stop students drinking on the streets of Galway during Freshers’ Week.

We saw it in Blackrock in Dublin a few months ago when local representatives wanted street furniture removed to stop people meeting up outdoors.

We also saw a similar attitude last summer towards canalside socialising and drinking in Dublin city centre when, in hindsight, the authorities should have been turning a very blind eye to it.

Even now under Level 5 lockdown can anybody rationally explain why golf courses are under forced closure, even for members who live locally?

We all understand that there is an official desire to reduce public movement of any kind. But at some stage scientific optimality has to give way to common sense.

If you are as bad at golf as I was when I used to play it, it takes between four and five hours to complete a round. That is four or five hours that you are not cooped up inside catching Covid from a close contact.

The necessary mindset shift towards the outdoors, as well as embracing the potential use of large well-ventilated buildings such as car parks and halls, appears to be happening in the land of officialdom.

When many were still overly focused on telling people to wash their hands, UCD architecture professor Orla Hegarty was relentlessly banging the drum on the importance of fresh air and ventilation. She consistently argued that some elements of life can go on safely as long as ventilation is prioritised. Hegarty is now on an expert committee advising Nphet, which is a sign of progress.

Rules and fees

Meanwhile, Fáilte Ireland is deploying grant aid towards tourism businesses to help them prepare for outdoor trading. Local authorities, such as Dublin City Council, waived some rules and fees for outdoor trading last year. This year they will have to step it up even more.

There is always the risk of Irish weather putting a dampener on things, of course. But personally I couldn’t care less about that.

It would be better for us all to sing safely in the rain this summer than moping around indoors, fed up and on our own.

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