It’s the day before every county in the State is due to go into Level 3, and it’s a bright, cold morning in Laytown, in Co Meath. The sea is glittering, the tide is out, and people are walking the lovely shell-strewn beach, which extends up along the coastline to Bettystown, 2km away. The two villages are so close to each other, their names are usually pronounced in tandem: Bettystown-Laytown, Laytown-Bettystown.
Recent Covid-19 data shows a national rate of 116 cases per 100,000 of population between September 22nd and October 5th. In that same date range, the local electoral area of Bettystown-Laytown, with a combined population of 34,121, recorded a rate of less than five per 100,000.
The large district, extending north to Drogheda and inland to Slane and beyond, has achieved what every area in Ireland aspires to: the lowest possible level of positive Covid-19 cases in the community.
And it’s far from the only area with that enviable statistic. Over those two weeks in September-October, the rate was the same on the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry, and in parts of Carlow, Cork, Galway, Leitrim, Longford, Mayo and Waterford.
The Irish Times is in Bettystown-Laytown – this area’s largest population centre with some 12,000 residents – to explore how it has managed to stay free, or virtually free, of Covid-19.
“That’s a tough question,” admits Jimmy Gilna, owner of The Cottage Inn in Laytown, a restaurant and bar. The business has been in his family for almost half a century. “Maybe because we are not a traditional village with one main street? We are disjointed. The businesses are spread out. We also have seven kilometres of beach, so there is plenty of room for people to walk and socially distance.
“But we are also a big commuter town. The age profile of the area is a mortgage with 2.5 kids.” He indicates the public carpark opposite the bar, which is very close to the railway station. It’s mostly empty. “Usually, that carpark is full at this time of day, with commuters taking the train to Dublin. But lots of people have been working from home for the past few months, and not commuting, so you’d think that more people around is more risk.”
Gilna thinks the answer may be as simple as compliance with the current public health regulations. “People are used to queueing, and waiting, and wearing their masks,” he says. While the restaurant upstairs had opened earlier in the summer, the downstairs bar remained closed until September 21st. On re-opening, capacity in the bar went from 150 to 86.
“The day we opened was like a tsunami. We put a booking system in place that same day. I’d say after that, 90 per cent of our business was via bookings: we put the word out on Facebook.”
The bar operated on a one-way system; entrance via one door and exit via another. “If I pulled someone up who was going out the wrong door, I only had to do it once,” he says. The bar has since closed again, in line with current regulations.
St Colmcilles GAA Club serves the Bettystown-Laytown district, and a hinterland of about 10km. Its chairman is Keith Loughman, and the vice-chair is James Kelly. The club has some 3,000 members. We meet in the unusual setting of the ladies dressing room, where the windows are wide open, and we can sit far from each other: all dressing rooms are currently closed to players. Toilets remain open, operating on a one-way system.
We had to tell parents that only one could come to watch a juvenile play
“There are 59 teams based here,” Kelly explains. “The membership ranges from five-year-olds to Gaelic for mothers and fathers. But 80 per cent of our membership would be juveniles under 18.”
Echoing the common values of every GAA club in the country, Loughman cites “community spirit” as being essential in helping them to keep their club running safely. “We adhered strictly to the numbers for matches,” he says. “Our supporters and members have been very respectful of Government guidelines. Everyone has worn masks and socially distanced.”
To keep to the numbers, they had to tell supporters, for instance, that only one family member could attend a match.
“We had to tell parents that only one could come to watch a juvenile play,” Kelly says. “We had to turn people away, and lock the gates once we had a hundred on. It goes against our ethos, but it was the right thing to do. And at matches after half time and after games, we sanitised the fence where supporters lean on.”
Any GAA club that had reported a case of a member testing positive has had to close for a period. “We have not had a single case here,” Loughman reports.
Kelly was not aware of the recent data around incidences of Covid-19 in their electoral area.
“I became aware of it over the weekend,” Loughman says. “We were surprised in the context of the sheer population of the area. I would have expected it to be higher with schools back. It can only come down to the hard work of the area, and compliance by the community.”
At Bettystown, there is a prominent sign close to the main entrance to the beach: “Beach closed to vehicles.”
“That’s been there since the summer,” Kim Boyle says. She works in East Coast Bookmakers, and says there are far fewer customers at present. “The beach was getting packed every day, so they closed it to cars.” Boyle was not aware of the low number of Covid-19 cases in the electoral area, but is not very surprised to hear the news. “I know a few people who have had tests, and were negative, but I don’t know anyone who has had it.”
The Centra in Bettystown, which also contains the post office, has a sign at the entrance, “No mask, no entry.” At the tills, which are fronted by Perspex screens, there are several hand-written signs, all of which state: “Give some space to your friend to keep everyone safe.”
I walk one way around the shop and don’t see a single person not wearing a mask, or not socially distancing.
It’s not the salt water coming in off the sea that has had our rates so low, it is the hard work of the community
Patrick Boshell is the owner of the Centra; a longtime businessman in the village. He employs 35 staff. “With compliance, you have to try and bring people with you,” he says. “When it comes to dealing with people, no matter what the rules are, not everything is black and white.”
From August 10th, it became mandatory to wear face coverings while in shops. “We staff had to set an example in the first week ourselves,” he says. “Customers were expecting us to comply. It’s a local business, and we know our customers. It’s a fine line between keeping to the rules and being polite to our customers. Our line is we encourage our customers to comply.”
By the second week of mandatory face-coverings, Boshell noticed that customers had started to take on some of the responsibility of compliance themselves. “People were challenging each other if they were not wearing masks. It had the result of dragging those few people not adhering into compliance.”
There are always exceptions, even now. People forget their masks. Some tell Boshell they can’t wear masks due to asthma or for other reasons. “What are you going to do? Ask them for doctor’s certificate? You have to let those slide; make your own judgment calls.”
Last week, a customer pointed out another shopper to him; an older woman, aged 80, who was not wearing a mask. “I offered her one when she got to the till. She said she had forgot. What do you do in those circumstances? You can’t throw someone out.” The woman did not take the mask, but said she would remember to wear one next time.
Tom Behan is a local Fianna Fáil councillor based in Laytown. “Bettystown-Laytown is one town in essence,” he says.
Being a councillor, he has consistently been keeping an eye on the Covid-19 data. “We have to learn to live with the virus, and we have been doing it quite well here, as the numbers show. I don’t think a lot of local people, or the majority are aware of our numbers. It’s good news, but we also don’t want lots of people to be coming here on the weekend because they think the area is virus free.”
Why does Behan think the rate has been so low in the area?
“Well, we have the beach, where people can walk and socially distance, but we are not the only county with an outdoor amenity like this,” he says. “Dublin has the Phoenix Park and Galway has Salthill. I put it down to sticking to the guidelines. Compliance. The message has got through here. Wear your face mask. Sanitise. It will work. There is evidence that it has worked here. It’s not the salt water coming in off the sea that has had our rates so low, it is the hard work of the community.”