JP McMahon: ‘It’s not restaurateurs’ job to enforce the quarantine’

We should not have to police a law that’s not being policed by those in power

JP McMahon in his Aniar restaurant in Galway. Typically it is Americans who make up the bulk of his  customers at the restaurant. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

JP McMahon in his Aniar restaurant in Galway. Typically it is Americans who make up the bulk of his customers at the restaurant. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

I never thought I’d see the day where I would be in the position, as a chef and restauranteur, to consider refusing Americans, or other foreigners, entry into my restaurants.

But this is what some in our industry are now calling for. On the door of one restaurant I have read the words: “No British or American Tourists”. Is this the new normal? 

Only recently we learned, at the end of their meal in our restaurant Cava Bodega, that a table of Texans had dined with us. Staff were uneasy. Customers too. Had they quarantined? When had they arrived?

Up to last week I didn’t think we had to ask these questions. In fact I didn’t even know there were planes flying into Dublin from Texas and Florida. If you had asked me if it was a good idea to fly from these areas (which have cases in the 10,000s), I would have answered: only if we want a second wave.  

As far as I was concerned, we in our restaurant had done things right. We got the masks, took out 20 seats for good social distancing and carried out contact tracing for all customers.

Were we now to refuse Americans who had just arrived in Ireland? How could we prove it? And could we afford to screen every customer in our restaurant, which is currently operating at 50 per cent turnover?

Let me put this bizarre situation into perspective. On any given night in July, for the past 10 years, our Michelin-starred restaurant Aniar was full (and by full I mean every seat) of Americans. Throughout the rest of the year the lowest we would go would be 60 per cent US diners.

It would be no exaggeration to say that they have assisted us in our pursuit of new Irish cuisine. Without them, we may be nothing, or something entirely different. But such is the situation now that we have flights arriving from Texas and Florida. And unfortunately these Americans are saying that they didn’t think the quarantine was mandatory. 

As restaurants reopen and landlords and banks begin to seek full rent again, we are put in the impossible position of being asked to put more staff on to manage the door and the bookings. Just yesterday, one of our staff spent the day ringing foreign numbers.

But what about the Irish numbers, those returning and not quarantining? Surely we should be asking the same question of them. We do indeed. Indeed we need to do it for everyone. But is it our job? Surely the State can control this better at the point of entry.

Do we need to stamp people’s foreheads with an Irish flag to show that they have recently arrived? Perhaps the ink could wear off after 14 days.

To combat this, we have put a system in place that asks customers, when they book, to answer honestly: have you been recently abroad or just travelled to Ireland? It seems okay, but the problem with it is that people can just answer no – even if they have been abroad.

Of course, as one person suggested to me, we could ask for boarding passes. And what about the Irish who have returned? It is too much to ask the hospitality industry of Ireland to police a quarantine that is not being policed by those in power.

Only one person in 20 who fill out the quarantine form is checked on. This is not good enough. My friend who returned to Poland during the lockdown was required to stay in his house for 14 days. The police checked every day, at different times, that he was where he said he was. Why can’t we do this in Ireland? It is farcical to imagine that people will quarantine if there is no one policing.

Another issue is the risk of discrimination. I know many Americans living in Ireland. Several have contacted me to say that they feel all eyes on them as they enter restaurants, hotels and supermarkets. That is not right either. There has been hate email to our restaurant for acknowledging that we have served Americans. This is a dangerous situation. 

Perhaps the elephant in the room is the planes. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar recently remarked that mandatory quarantining might not be legal or possible. But how then did New Zealand, an island similar to ourselves, manage? Anything is possible, as we saw during the lockdown, if we care enough. 

I am a socially responsible restauranteur who believes we should do the right thing. So I will do my best. But that is not enough. We need everyone, from the tourists to the airlines, from the Government to the Garda, to make this island safe, so that we may, in some imagined future, return to the normal we had before.

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