Covid rules: ‘People were travelling over the Border from Donegal all the time’

Restrictions on hospitality in North set to lift at end of month - later than in the Republic

Enda Nicholls, owner of Arena 7 in Letterkenny: ‘When we explain the law, that puts some people off. And of course it doesn’t help that some places turn a blind eye.’ Photograph: Joe Dunne

Earlier this summer, before even outdoor dining was permitted, business was brisk at one of Letterkenny's most popular coffee spots as people queued for a takeaway caffeine hit. One customer who had parked his Northern Ireland registered car outside the door was attracting a lot of attention as the only person on the premises not wearing a mask. Reminded politely about the regulations, he mumbled something about a medical condition and was invited to wait in his car until his order was delivered to him there.

“He turned on his heel in a rage, hopped into his car and drove off,” according to a local.

One bugbear of businesses operating close to the Border is that the Republic has always been “a few steps behind” when it comes to easing Covid restrictions, making it attractive for local customers to head North, while causing resentment among some customers travelling in the opposite direction.

Last week's announcement from Stormont that the North's hospitality sector will have to wait until the end of this month before most restrictions are lifted, slightly behind the October 22nd date set by the Government in Dublin, has caused little jubilation.


One anonymous northern businessman said: 'Southerners are more obedient. The Northern Catholic mentality is to break the rules'

"We're stealing a wee march on them for once, but a week is going to make no difference," says Letterkenny businessman Enda Nicholls. "People always move ahead of the curve. In Derry now, many people are not wearing masks and there are pubs in Letterkenny who are already staying open until 12.30 and 1am."

That lack of solidarity made it even more painful when Nicholls was subjected to a barrage of online abuse after announcing on Facebook at the end of July that his Arena 7 entertainment complex, comprising a bowling alley, restaurant, bar and children's play area, would be reopening in line with Government regulations and for "fully vaccinated people only" .

The vitriol, much of it apparently from the southern side of the Border, included calls for a boycott, comparisons with Hitler and Stalin, and allegations of “medical apartheid” and segregation.

In a town where many were horrified after a Covid-19 patient was “rescued” from the local hospital by anti-vaccine campaigners, only to die there after being readmitted, people sprang to Nicholls’ defence.

“It was an orchestrated campaign,” he says of the abuse, adding that “around 90 per cent have voted with their feet by having the vaccine”.

Many of his customers from the North check in advance to see what the regulations are but he has had to turn away a small number who arrived at Arena 7 without proof of vaccination.

"When we explain the law, that puts some people off. And of course it doesn't help that some places turn a blind eye," he says, referring to a small number of pubs in Co Donegal who reportedly haven't stuck rigidly to the rules.

“Unfortunately the Government tells us to police it,” said Nicholls who believes that being allowed to reopen with strict rules was “the lesser of two evils”.

Like many in the hospitality sector, he says, having consistently been “a few weeks behind” Northern Ireland when it comes to easing restrictions has been an ongoing challenge.

PJ McDermott, the co-owner of An Grianan hotel in Burt, a stone's throw from the Border, estimates that he lost 50 per cent of his business from Northern Ireland throughout the pandemic.

“We are always two steps behind the North. We have to ask people questions. It is not straightforward. There is a little bit of resistance,” he says.

While he is optimistic about a bounce once restrictions ease on October 22nd, he believes Donegal should have been aligned to Northern Ireland when it comes to Covid-19 restrictions. When An Grianan was barely operating, a premises a few minutes’ drive away on the other side of the Border was “flat to the mat” with several Donegal cars regularly seen outside the door, he says.

“So [restrictions] didn’t serve any great purpose. People were travelling over the Border from Donegal all the time.”

There is also a concern in the hospitality sector that young people, long impatient with early closing time and curtailed social lives, have now discovered how easy it is to get to places like Derry and will continue to see that as an option even when all restrictions are lifted.

Paddy Simpson, owner of the Brunswick Moviebowl in Derry, says the proportion of his customers from the South rose from 15 per cent pre-Covid to 25 per cent during the pandemic.

“We have always been a few weeks ahead of the South,” says Simpson, who stresses that there were ups and downs throughout the last 18 months. “There were periods when people from the South seemed to think you would catch Covid if you came to Northern Ireland.”

The more relaxed attitude to mask wearing among customers living in the North was noted by many in business on both sides.

Patience is wearing thin among the GAA fraternity and one club in Letterkenny has a reason to be particularly aggrieved

One northern businessman who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of offending his customers said: “Southerners are more obedient. The Northern Catholic mentality is to break the rules because they have been living under British rule for so long. Northern Protestants don’t break the rules.”

One woman running a seaside cafe in west Donegal complained that “no matter how many signs you had on the door”, a lot of northern visitors had to be reminded to put on masks.

“And many would say ‘why?’. You would get very smart remarks. We had to start leaving facemasks at the door,” she says. “At the start we didn’t charge but then some would take five or six so we charged €1 each.”

She found younger customers to be more co-operative, offering to eat outside or in their cars if they didn’t have proof of vaccination.

“The middle-aged were the ones arguing, saying things like ‘you are in the middle of nowhere here, do you really think the guards will come in?’. We did have to turn a lot of people away.”

Hospitality isn't the only area where the rules have been causing irritation. Patience is wearing thin among the GAA fraternity and one club in Letterkenny has a reason to be particularly aggrieved. Croke Park recently issued updated rules but still only six people a time are permitted into dressing rooms. Rugby clubs have no such restrictions.

Letterkenny Gaels share a clubhouse with Letterkenny rugby club but while they squelch their way home in wet gear after training, their rugby playing neighbours are enjoying the comfort of dressing rooms and hot showers.

“We train at the same time in the same rain but we can’t shower afterwards,” says one local GAA player.