Covid-19: Worry of further losses at Belfast’s Hatfield House bar

Bar manager Richie Keenan and his team are set for uncertain post-Covid-19 reopening

Richie Keenan in the Hatfield on the Ormeau Road, Belfast: Staff use the pub tables as an office. Photograph: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker

Richie Keenan in the Hatfield on the Ormeau Road, Belfast: Staff use the pub tables as an office. Photograph: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker

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From the outside Hatfield House bar looks the same, but inside everything is different.

The Hatfield, on Belfast’s Lower Ormeau Road, has been closed since St Patrick’s Day when, like many pubs in the North, it shut voluntarily to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Now its bar staff sit at tables which have been converted into desks with a phone and computer, taking orders for food and off-sales deliveries as well as pints from their bespoke “Guinness vans” which are freshly poured and left on customers’ doorsteps.

Elsewhere, bottles and kegs are stacked where once there would have been stools and seats; the spirits are gone from behind the bar and only a few glasses remain.

“We spent quite a bit of money refurbishing this part of the bar two years ago,” says manager Richie Keenan. “We did it all up lovely and it breaks my heart to see it like this because I poured my heart and soul into this bar. But in another way I’m really proud of those guys in there [taking orders] because the Hatfield’s gone all round the world since we closed, because of the Guinness vans, and it got so busy.”

The Hatfield has been a fixture in south Belfast since 1871. It boasts a bar made by craftsmen who installed the same design on the Titanic. It is popular with students, but Keenan admits uncertainty over how many might return in September is “terrifying”.

“We are aware that this could be a longer haul for us.”

Pubs in the North can reopen from July 3rd for table service only, provided they observe social distancing measures, and drinks can also be served in their outdoor spaces. But it is not yet clear how this will work in practice.

Industry body Hospitality Ulster has called for clear guidelines and for the requirement for social distancing of 2m to be reduced to 1m in line with the World Health Organisation recommendations.

Safe spaces

Otherwise, its chief executive Colin Neill said, “it is highly likely that many hospitality businesses will still be unable to reopen, as it simply will not be commercially viable”.

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What is needed, says Keenan, is action from government. There are fears in the industry that the coronavirus crisis has accelerated the gap between pubs and off-sales. He says there must be “minimum unit pricing, that they do something about the VAT rate, that they encourage pubs as safe spaces, that they work with us on outside trading”.

The numbers are stark. The Hatfield can hold 700 people but under current social distancing regulations the maximum would be 130 to 140.

Would it be economically viable? Not given the last three months.

“There’s a real possibility that we’ll be opening to lose more money.”

He quotes a mentor who told him pubs sell “atmosphere, not beer”; social distancing, however necessary, is “removing atmosphere, which is our product, and that’s the scary thing.

“We’re literally taking people out of the pubs and people are what make pubs, and if we take all those people away, where’s the incentive to come? That’s what we’re worried about.”

These fears are replicated across Belfast. He cites one owner, originally from Draperstown, Co Derry, who still has a small pub back home.

“How can they possibly trade with social distancing? These wee pubs up the country that are the life blood of Irish culture, we’re going to lose them.”

‘Bit of banter’

One of Keenan’s concerns is “our wee men who’ve been coming in here and sitting at that counter for 30 years, who come here for their bit of social interaction”.

He describes one man – a carer for his elderly mother – who came in every day for a beer and “a bit of banter” with the staff.

“That was crucial to his day and to his mental health and wellbeing,” he says.

“He’s still calling down here for a yarn at the off-sales door [but] . . . sitting at a table in the corner’s going to be hard for that guy.”

Survival post-Covid, says Keenan, will be down to innovation and diversification. At the back door, two men are hard at work building the wooden frame which will be installed inside the van to hold the kegs and equipment.

“This will be van number five,” says Keenan. “We’ll keep Guinness vans after Covid, because it is really special.”

He recalls one delivery to an elderly man terminally ill with cancer; afterwards, his family “sent us the loveliest message to say thank you and they never thought they’d see him smile like that again,” says Keenan.

As soon as the Hatfield can reopen safely, it will do so.

“We will open as somewhere for people to come and socialise because that’s our duty,” says Keenan . “People support us all the time, so we have to be here to support them.”

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