Gearoid Whelan is up a ladder in his pub in Newcastle West, Co Limerick. He is getting ready for the reopening he still believes might happen in the summer. "I said all along we wouldn't be open before June 15th, and I'm still working towards June or July."
Recent comments by Minister for Health Simon Harris about how he doubted that "packed pubs" could come back before a vaccine or effective treatment are reported to have "petrified the pub sector".
Donall O'Keeffe, chief executive of the Licensed Vintners Association, said the prospect of bars not reopening this year was a "nightmare scenario" that would mean "most pubs will be out of business for good".
But Whelan has taken the remarks as a challenge. We first met in September 2019, after a report by the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland revealed that the number of seven-day pub licences nationally had decreased by 18 per cent between 2005 and 2018. Limerick was the hardest-hit county: nearly 28 per cent of its pubs shut their doors during the period.
Whelan was optimistic then about the future of the Irish pub, suggesting that the worst of the storm had passed. One pandemic later, he’s still clinging to that optimism.
“He said ‘packed pubs’. I totally get that. Social distancing is going to be in play when we do reopen, whenever that is. People are jumping on that comment, but I don’t think he meant pubs can’t reopen.”
There won't be any standing. If you don't get a seat in the bar, unfortunately you won't be coming in
So during the lockdown, he has been spending his time getting the pub ready for social distancing: removing half the high chairs around the bar, installing partitions to protect bar staff, creating supermarket-style flow-through routes through the bar, and dividing the beer garden into sections, so that there’s no longer any standing space in the middle. He’s also planning to enforce hand sanitiser use on the door and offer table service.
“And there won’t be any standing. If you don’t get a seat in the bar, unfortunately you won’t be coming in.”
He is considering implementing a booking system similar to restaurants, whereby customers book ahead and reserve a table for a two-hour window.
In common with others in the industry, however, he predicts that not all publicans will survive the kind of changes demanded by social distancing. He estimates he has spent €3,000 getting ready for social distancing, and he and his brother did all the labour to reduce costs.
While the pub is closed, he’s had to lay off all his staff, but most of his other overheads – from payments to drinks suppliers to TV providers – are on hold. The main cost still going out of the business is insurance.
“The breweries are in the process of taking back all the drink because they don’t know if it will be gone past its best-before date by the time we reopen.”
Will it be financially viable to reopen at what industry sources estimate could be 50 per cent capacity?
“It’s either that, or we stay closed until next year. We’ll be the last to reopen. We have to be last.”
Further down Maiden Street, behind the closed doors of the Silver Dollar pub, Patrick O’Kelly is making the most of the time off and trying not to worry too much about a future he can’t control. When we met last September, he hadn’t had a day off since January. “Now I’m on my fifth week off,” he says.
While he’s enjoying the phone not ringing at all hours with a problem in the bar, “I do have a massive worry if we’ll ever be able to open again.”
If you're two metres from the fella beside you, how do you have a conversation?
What he wants, he says, is clarity. “To know when I can reopen. We’ll adapt; we have to. We’re five generations here. I don’t want it to die with me.”
The other thing that’s worrying him is how the customer experience will be impacted in the era of social distancing.
“How do you manage it? If we have all the tables two metres apart, and there’s only one customer at each table, you might only have seven customers at a time in the bar. You go to the bar for a bit of a company. But if you’re two metres from the fella beside you, how do you have a conversation?”
He is also looking into introducing a booking system. And, he muses, “we might end up bringing back the snug.”
Traditional wooden ones?
“I’m thinking it would be a modern snug. A plastic partition. We wouldn’t be doing anything too drastic because I’m hoping it will all go back to the way it was eventually. Up to now, if you want to go for a pint after work, you walk in and have a pint. You might meet someone at the counter and have a chat. That will be gone. The craic isn’t going to be there.
“We should survive ourselves. But will the customers be there? Will they be bothered? If they can go to down to the supermarket and get a can of beer for 80p, will they come to my place and pay €4.40 for it?”
The Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI), which represents pubs outside Dublin, is asking similar questions.
"The average person will be asking themselves, 'will I feel safe in this pub?'" says Brian Foley, the VHI's communications and public affairs manager.
While the situation remains grim, publicans understand better than most the need people have to socialise
But the first thing the industry needs is answers.
“Before we get to the future, the Government has to explain what that future might look like for pubs. Will pubs be allowed open with social distancing? If so, businesses will be operating below a viable threshold. We need Government to support pubs” for as long as it takes to become viable.
“We’re still at the early stages of working out how the sociability of a pub is preserved in this new environment... While the situation remains grim, publicans understand better than most the need people have to socialise. We’re all big fans of Zoom right now, but that’s because we’re in an emergency. Given a choice, most people will want to meet in person.”
Whatever new guidelines are introduced in terms of implementing social distancing, he adds, “we should be careful they don’t rip the soul out of pubs.”
Psychologist Ian Robertson points out that the human need for social engagement is strong, and that, throughout the crisis, people have shown themselves to be "enormously adaptable. The second principle to bear in mind is that we think our behaviours are shaped by our personalities, wishes and free will, but we're incredibly attuned to environmental contingencies."
In the case of pubs, “if the easy, lovely, relaxed Friday evening atmosphere of the pub can’t happen, then it will have an effect.” The new social distancing rules “will shape our behaviours [and] engineer our unconscious processes”.
Could the social distancing environment alter our behaviour by making us fearful, he wonders, and less inclined to want to go to the pub? “Nobody can predict what these changes will be and how long they will last.”
Even before the pandemic, outside forces were shaping our relationship with pubs.
“That trend was already in place. We have incredibly cheap alcohol in supermarkets, and the sheer affordability of the alcohol meant a lot people had already stopped going to the pub.”
I can see how people will say pubs won't come back, but the majority have the willingness to adapt
On the other hand, he adds, “the Irish are incredibly sociable and always have been”.
And while technologies such as Zoom are allowing us to meet our need for interaction in the short term, it’s not quite the same.
“I’ve got my book club tomorrow night virtually. I’ll have drinks with friends at the weekend over Zoom.”
So will he ever go back to the pub? “Certainly, as long as there’s a pub to go back to.”
PhD on rural pubs
Jim McCauley, a lecturer in the school of culinary arts at TU Cathal Brugha Street, is currently doing a PhD on rural pubs. The impact of the lockdown "has made a very interesting second half of my study".
Publicans, he points out, “are by and large a resilient bunch of people. They have had existential crises before – from famine to the temperance movement, the War of Independence, Civil War, recession, emigration. I can see how people will say pubs won’t come back, but the majority have the willingness to adapt.”
All that said, social distancing will still pose a major challenge, and he would like to see a taskforce set up to help publicans navigate the future. “When you think about a pub, it’s designed for intimacy. The whole topography of pubs are designed in a way to create proximity.”
He expects to see the pubs that do stay open adapt and innovate over time to meet the challenge, offering book groups, more craft beers or takeaway coffee. He cites a pub in Cavan that offers co-working spaces upstairs.
“You can never emphasise enough the importance of the community role” of the pub as a “third space” in people’s lives, beyond home and work. “People have a desire for a third place, and technology doesn’t really satisfy that.”
As the lines between our home and working lives for many people blur, “the pub will become the second place for a lot of people”.