Fresh restrictions on hospitality businesses come into force on Tuesday, and one publicans’ group has said some in the sector are concerned that these might not be the last curbs announced on their operations.
Due to the ongoing high level of Covid-19 transmission in the community and concerns about the Omicron variant, the Government has introduced measures which mean bars and restaurants must now offer table service only, permit no more than six customers to sit at a table, prevent patrons from booking multiple tables and ensure there is a distance of at least one metre between tables. Nightclubs will also have to close, with the restrictions due to remain in place until January 9th.
Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, said the group's members have seen virtually every corporate booking and Christmas party cancelled.
“Here we go again at a time that is critical to our sector . . . we need to have a conversation [with Government] about what is the [long-term] plan,” he said.
The latest restrictions are considered almost irrelevant to a downturn in business by some in the sector, who say the real damage was done when there were public warnings against socialising, which damaged consumer confidence.
"When you have a chief medical officer specifically mentioning hospitality, and he doesn't mention gyms or retail, it very much sets a tone for Christmas," said Mark McGowan, owner of the Scholars Townhouse Hotel in Drogheda.
“You have a cohort of society that very much hangs on every word he [Dr Tony Holohan] says.”
Mr McGowan said that as of this week, the hotel’s restaurant has been notified of some 2,500 cancellations. A good number of replacement bookings have come in, but he says there has been a net loss of about 1,500.
Representatives of the sector say curbs on trading in December are particularly sensitive, as the lead-up to Christmas is a time when businesses usually record around three times the amount of business they would in a normal month.
While hospitality businesses stress their support for public health advice, and keeping staff and customers safe, many feel they are being singled out at exactly the wrong time. Businesses such as Scholars will turn their attention back to takeaway food, hire fewer staff and hope that Government supports currently being worked out help them to get by.
The Licensed Vintners Association (LVA), which represents pubs in Dublin, says a change in consumer behaviour in recent weeks had seen a once-promising looking Christmas period "fall through the floor".
“The hospitality sector is still worried that additional restrictions are coming,” an LVA spokesman said.
The Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI), representing pubs outside the capital, also believes the change in public health messaging in recent weeks was the main blow to seasonal prospects.
“It’s almost like we are in a holding pattern to see how virulent the Omicron variant is,” a spokesman said of the lingering uncertainty that has left pubs half empty. “In our view it’s all about what supports are there for the trade now.”
While many in the sector believe the real body blow preceded last week’s renewed restrictions including table numbers and bookings, the closure of nightclubs, and limits on household interaction, the events sector is struggling with the specifics, namely a 50 per cent crowd cap.
The Events Industry Association of Ireland (EIAI), which represents almost 36,000 workers, said nothing would be left untouched by a restriction reducing capacity at live indoor events to 50 per cent.
Elaine O’Connor of the EIAI said everything from community charity events, Christmas markets and light shows, ice skating, and Santa’s grottos would be impacted.
“My struggle is to think of an event that isn’t affected,” she said.