People from as far as Offaly are making the most of changes to the North’s Covid rules

Northern Ireland has taken another significant step out of lockdown with the reopening of indoor hospitality

 

Monday was a big day for three-month-old Teagan McGonagle. “It’s her first time in a cafe,” explains her mother Rachel McGlinchey. “She’s a lockdown baby.”

Wide-eyed she watches the other customers, her gaze following the waiters and waitresses as they pass by delivering food to other tables. “She doesn’t know any different,” says her mother, “but she’s my first child, and it has been hard. We couldn’t get out and meet people.”

At Caffé Fresco in Strabane, Co Tyrone, the rest of the diners are equally delighted to be out.

“If you get the chance to have a cup of coffee brought to you, you don’t refuse it,” says Edith Ramsey from Derry.

She is with her son and daughter Ivor and Lee-ann on what is their first day out post-lockdown. “It feels like a bit of normality,” says Lee-ann.

“It’s great to be able to get out and support local businesses as well,” adds Ivor. “People have been struggling. It’s right we should be out and helping them.”

On Monday Northern Ireland took another significant step out of lockdown with the reopening of indoor hospitality and the rest of the tourism industry, including indoor visitor and cultural attractions.

The ban on meeting in homes has also been lifted, with up to six people from no more than two households allowed to meet in domestic settings indoors.

It is a marked difference from the situation only a mile or so over the Border in Lifford, Co Donegal, where the hospitality industry is still limited to takeaway only and indoor attractions remain closed.

At the cafe, people from as far afield as Co Offaly have been making the most of the change in the rules in the North.

“We’re from across the Border,” says Sheila McGlinchey from Buncrana, Co Donegal. “There’s still no inside dining; it’s still takeaway only. But at least we can go into the North now without feeling like we might be stopped.”

Novelty

The Casey family from Shannonbridge, Co Offaly, are on their way home from a weekend with friends near Strabane. “We couldn’t wait,” says Patricia Casey. “This is our first time outside our 5k in practically a year and a half – we’ve been nowhere.

“It’s such a novelty being in a cafe – at home you can still only get takeout. But we walked in the door, we were asked to sanitise our hands, and brought straight to our table – it was perfect.”

“It feels like we’re getting back to the freedoms we’ve lost in the last year,” adds her husband Philip. “You can come in and go for a coffee today in the North, or get a pint – we can’t still do that [at home].

“It’s such a relief to be able to meet people, to be able to sit down and just have a chat. It’s just a part of who we are.”

Outside the café the owner Trevor Mealiff is hard at work removing the marquee that for the last few weeks has provided a temporary cover for customers while outdoor dining-only was permitted.

Instead he and the neighbouring shops have banded together to get funding for a permanent Perspex cover over the pavement which will future-proof their outdoor dining space; reopening after this latest lockdown, he says, was easier as all the public health measures were already in place.

Diversify

He worked hard to diversify during lockdown and used his last remaining funds to buy a pizza oven so he could sell takeaway pizza three nights a week; at one stage he had £275 left in the bank to keep the business afloat.

Some of the changes will stay. The cafe will not go back to restaurant dining at night, but will keep selling pizzas, not least because of the difficulty finding chefs. “So many have gone off and found different jobs during lockdown. I know chefs who are now postmen and delivery drivers,” says Mealiff.

Yet as he watches the steady flow of customers in and out of the cafe, he is hopeful. “I genuinely can’t see us going back into lockdown again.”

And he is confident of a good summer for Ireland’s hospitality industry. “Put it this way, no one will be going on holiday abroad this year.”