Coronavirus: Publican groups expect some bars will never reopen

Covid-19 pandemic causing ‘existential crisis’ for the industry, say vintners

Garda public order unit in Temple Bar as pubs in that area of Dublin close in interest of public health on Sunday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Garda public order unit in Temple Bar as pubs in that area of Dublin close in interest of public health on Sunday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The decision to close the country’s pubs in a bid to stem the coronavirus epidemic will decimate the industry and put some bars out of business, industry groups have warned.

The Government asked the country’s 7,000 pubs and hotel bars to close from last night until at least March 29th to protect public health after the Licensed Vintners Association and the Vintners Federation of Ireland told State officials that the social distancing guidelines were unworkable.

The decision was taken after images circulated on social media showing packed pubs in Temple Bar, Dublin, flouting the Government’s recommendations that people keep a distance in social interaction and that indoor gatherings of more than 100 people be cancelled.

The images prompted Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to post on Twitter that he might seek enforcement powers from the Dáil and Seanad to impose guidelines on indoor mass gatherings of more than 100 people.

Representatives of the pub trade accepted that the decision was necessary in the interest of public health but warned that it could have long-term consequences for some pubs.

“I think we have seen some businesses in Ireland that will sell their last drink tonight and will never reopen again,” said Donall O’Keeffe, chief executive of the LVA.

The coronavirus outbreak had created an “existential crisis” for the industry. He described it as a “traumatic” and “unprecedented” day for the licensed trade.

“Our turnover goes to zero in the morning. We have probably the single biggest loss of jobs in the history of the State: 50,000 people are out of work in the morning, 7,000 businesses are closing tonight,” he said.

“The licensed trade has operated in Ireland for 200 years plus. I don’t think anyone ever envisaged a situation where pubs in the country would be shut.”

He described the coronavirus outbreak as “the biggest crisis the State has faced.

“We have never seen this in our lifetimes. We are in uncharted territory and it is getting worse fast. The ramifications of a public health perspective and economic and business perspective are just ginormous,” he said.

‘Reputational damage’

Minister for Health Simon Harris said he was conscious of the effect on employees.

“I’m conscious that I’m speaking to people for whom this is going to come as a shock and a worry, and I am conscious that those people will be without employment for a period of weeks,” he said.

Asked what would happen to pubs who chose to ignore the Government’s request to close, Mr O’Keeffe said pubs that do not close as told would suffer “irreparable reputational damage.”

A spokesman for the other publican representative group, the VFI, said: “We don’t imagine that there will be too many pubs that will do. Certainly they will be getting visits from An Garda Síochána and I would imagine that the local population wouldn’t be too impressed either.”

The pub industry representatives will be meeting Department of Business officials to see if they can decide a system to process social welfare payments through employers.

Mr O’Keeffe said that social welfare system “can’t cope with 50,000 applications”, he said.

Bank moratorium

This week the industry would seek a moratorium from banks on loans and a moratorium from the State on employers’ social welfare payments and commercial and water rates.

“We have families going home tonight – workers, barmen, floor staff – who are going to be very worried about paying their rent or their mortgages next week, about paying their way,” he said.

Pubs in Temple Bar were condemned for failing to impose restrictions on the number of people on their premises in order to stay within the Government limits on social distancing.

Martin Keane, owner of the Oliver St John Gogarty pub in Temple Bar, said his staff were unable to keep 100 people in each of the three separate bars on his premises on Saturday night as his customers wanted to “gravitate” between the bars. “The place was never designed to segregate people,” he said.

Asked why the premises was not closed when crowding happened, Mr Keane said that he closed it earlier than normal, at 12.45am instead of 2.30am.

“I didn’t think there would be the deluge of people. Looking back, in hindsight, the buck does stop with me. I probably didn’t realise the effect of so many other places being closed,” he said. “I didn’t expect that there would be so many other people out at night. I personally read it wrong.”