Hugh Linehan: Ireland is now an outlier in the restrictions it places on entertainment

A recent Iveagh Gardens gig looked nice but gave no data for returning to normality

"This is a momentous day and we deserve it because it has been a long, long road," New York governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters in Manhattan on Tuesday as he announced the lifting of virtually all remaining Covid-19 restrictions.

In New York, where 70 per cent of the population have received at least one vaccine dose, indoor dining, which was already permitted, will no longer have seating limitations on numbers, while cinemas and other venues will be able to fill their auditoriums to capacity.

Music promoters have been quick to react. On June 20th, Foo Fighters will play to the first full house in Madison Square Garden for 15 months. From next Saturday, Bruce Springsteen is back on Broadway with full-capacity shows.

Similar relaxations were announced this week by Gavin Newsom, governor of California, where 72 per cent of the population has now received at least one jab. The decisions in these two big, Democrat-voting states, following much earlier moves in places like Florida and Texas, represent a defining moment in America's transition to the post-lockdown era.

The US, of course, is a bit further down the vaccine path than Ireland, where, according to the HSE's Paul Reid this week, 58 per cent of the adult population has now received one dose, with around 28 per cent fully vaccinated.

But, barring some massive supply failure, we’ll be where they are now by mid-July. Except, when it comes to lifting restrictions on mass gatherings, indoor venues and cultural events, we won’t.

Look across the European Union, whose member countries are on a very similar vaccine trajectory to ours, and it quickly becomes apparent how much of an outlier Ireland is in the continuing severity of the restrictions it places on its citizens.

Why is it fine for events to take place in Belgium, Denmark or the Netherlands but not in Ireland?

Unlike here, indoor service in bars and restaurants is permitted nearly everywhere. In France, cinemas and theatres have moved from 35 per cent to 65 per cent capacity. In Denmark, all indoor venues are open, with the exception of nightclubs (they'll have to wait until September 1st).

European governments are now setting dates for moving to full capacity for sporting and entertainment events. In the Netherlands, that's set to happen in 10 days' time. In Belgium, music festivals with attendances of up to 75,000 will be permitted from August 13th.

In many of these countries, ticket holders are required to show evidence of vaccination or of a negative Covid test to gain entry. In Denmark, the “coronapass” gives you access to bars, restaurants and entertainment venues for 48 hours after a negative test. Antigen tests form a crucial part of these systems, and the unusually negative attitude among key Irish decision-makers towards that form of testing clearly forms part of the reason for this country’s laggardly status when it comes to reopening.

This week, Minister for Arts Catherine Martin announced €25 million of grants to the live entertainment sector. The scheme aims to support live performances "particularly where capacity for live attendance is restricted due to Covid-19, and where funding will make live performances viable or alternatively make them available online if audiences cannot attend due to restrictions". In other words, it is designed to support an ongoing model of very limited audiences.

The industry welcomed the money, but continues with some justification to ask why we’ve been so slow to reopen in comparison with other EU countries, many of which have higher Covid positivity rates than Ireland. Yes, there are concerns about the Delta variant’s spread in the UK, which has led to a one-month delay in the “full reopening” which was planned to take place there next week. But the UK (including Northern Ireland) is still far more open than we are.

The fear in the entertainment and culture sectors, as well as in hospitality and tourism, is that the unparalleled and largely unexplained severity of Ireland’s restrictions will continue throughout the summer and into the autumn.

And that, instead of the sort of graduated reopening, with pilot events using mass antigen testing which we’ve seen in the UK and the EU, we’ll have to content ourselves with the likes of last week’s Iveagh Gardens concert, which looked very nice but provided no useful data for plotting a return to normality or to commercial viability.

On Wednesday, Electric Picnic moved the dates of this year's (still provisional) festival back from September 3rd-5th to September 24th-26th, in recognition of the likelihood of restrictions still being in place at the end of the summer. Fair enough, but it does beg the very simple question: why is it fine for these events to take place in Belgium, Denmark or the Netherlands well before those dates, but not in Ireland?