How did anyone know Zappone gathering complied with the rules?

Q&A: AG has clarified legal situation but the guidelines seem to contain contradictions

 Merrion Hotel in Dublin’s city centre: It hosted a controversial outdoor function for about 50  held by former minister Katherine Zappone and attended by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Merrion Hotel in Dublin’s city centre: It hosted a controversial outdoor function for about 50 held by former minister Katherine Zappone and attended by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

 

The Government says that Covid-19 regulations allow for organised outdoor events and gatherings of up to 200 people.

The advice from Attorney General Paul Gallagher came after controversy over an outdoor function for about 50 people hosted by former minister Katherine Zappone in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel which was attended by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.

They both said they checked with the hotel that the event would be compliant with Covid-19 restrictions.

The Merrion Hotel has said it adhered to Government public health measures “at all times since the start of the pandemic” including guidelines that were in place at the time of the event on July 21st.

However, confusion remains over what exactly is permitted.

The guidelines for the sector are drawn up by Fáilte Ireland in consultation with officials from various Government departments.

The Government has promised updated guidelines to ensure “clarity” about how organised outdoor events may operate into the future.

Q: What are the regulations?

The Government has highlighted two Statutory Instruments signed by Minister of Health Stephen Donnelly that provide the legal basis for allowing 200 people at organised outdoor events.

The first, signed on May 9th, allows for a “relevant event” to be held for social, recreational, exercise, cultural, entertainment or community reasons. Events in a dwelling, a wedding reception, a sporting event or a training event are specifically excluded. The second regulation was signed on July 4th.

It allows a person to organise a “relevant event” in a “relevant geographical location” in circumstances where they take all reasonable steps to ensure it takes place entirely outdoors and the numbers do not exceed 200.

“Relevant geographical location” does not appear to be defined beyond a line that says it means “a geographical location to which an affected areas order applies”. The Department of Health pointed to this definition while also saying that it did not include a list of the kinds of places that fall into the category.

Q: What do the Fáilte Ireland guidelines say about it?

The guidelines for restaurants and cafes and the separate document for pubs both said there can be a maximum of 200 attendees at the “majority of venues” under the heading of “Organised Outdoor Events/Gatherings”. However, under the next heading of “Meetings/Events” they say “Organised events are currently not permitted”.

Fáilte Ireland did not respond to a question seeking clarity on this apparent contradiction.

It may be the case that the organised meetings that are not permitted are those that take place indoors (though there are some exceptions) but this is not made clear. Meanwhile, the Fáilte Ireland guidelines for hotels do not mention the provision allowing for up to 200 people to attend organised outdoor events at all.

Q: If it is not mentioned in the guidelines for hotels, how did anyone know the Zappone event complied with Covid-19 regulations?

A spokeswoman for the Merrion Hotel said it assessed that the event would be compliant as the Fáilte Ireland guidelines in place at the time did not impose restrictions on organised outdoor events. She also said that the public health measures published on gov.ie allowed for organised outdoor events of up to 200 attendees.

The Merrion Hotel has said there has been “significant changes” to Fáilte Ireland’s guidelines since the event took place on July 21st. The version of the guidelines in place at the time only said organised indoor events are not allowed to proceed. There is no reference to outdoor events being excluded.

A later version of the guidelines updated a number of times from July 23rd onwards simply says “Organised events are currently not permitted”, implying such events both indoors and outdoors.

The Merrion Hotel also said the version of the guidelines in place as of July 21st did not include a rule against multiple tables being booked for an outdoor event.

The guidelines did state that multiple tables could not be booked indoors at the time. The more recent guidelines simply say “multiple tables cannot be booked” for food and beverage service, again implying this is the case both indoors and outdoors.

Q: How has the broader hospitality industry reacted?

Restaurants Association of Ireland chief executive Adrian Cummins said his organisation did not know that up to 200 people were allowed at outdoor gatherings. He welcomed the announcement, saying “it gives us extra capacity and extra revenue opportunity”. But he also complained “We’ve missed a huge amount of revenue within hospitality.”

An Irish Hotels Federation statement said: “Prior to yesterday’s clarification by the Attorney General, the Irish Hotels Federation was not aware that outdoor events of up to 200 people were permitted. We welcome this clarification and await publication by Fáilte Ireland of updated guidelines for hotels.”

Q: So are events of up to 200 people allowed?

Under the law, yes, according to the Attorney General. However, the current Fáilte Ireland guidelines don’t clearly reflect this. For instance all three documents for hotels, restaurants and pubs respectively currently say “multiple tables cannot be booked”.

With a limit of six adults to a table or 15 people including children this means if the existing guidelines are followed there won’t be outdoor events of up to 200 people under the current guidelines. There is also the apparent contradiction in the guidelines for restaurants and pubs which say in one breath that a maximum of 200 attendees can attend the majority of venues for organised outdoor events and in another that “organised events are currently not permitted” when talking about meetings.

Fáilte Ireland has said it will engage intensively with Government departments to update the guidelines and work on this will continue on Friday.