Many pubs will never reopen after curbs lifted, auctioneer says

‘I don’t know if we’ll ever see day again when people are two or three deep at the counter’

The Covid -19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the rural Irish pub. We visit four family owned bars in and around Boyle, Co Roscommon that are struggling to survive.Video: Bryan O’Brien

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The impact of the pandemic on the pub trade will be on a different scale to the 1970s oil crisis or 1990s financial crisis, a leading auctioneer specialising in Irish pub sales has warned.

Vintners representatives say they are expecting many of Ireland’s 7,100 pubs to remain shut once restrictions are eased and Covid financial supports are halted.

On March 15th, 2020, the Government requested the closure of pubs in the State – which employ about 50,000 people – for two weeks as a result of Covid-19. Many have not reopened since.

“This is totally new,” said John P Younge, who has worked for 40 years in the pub auctioneering trade. “This pandemic is a different story. The previous crises didn’t last as long relatively speaking.”

Normally dealing with 12-15 pub sales a year, he said the last year has been a “write-off”.

On a predicted spike in pubs going to the wall when the lockdown is eased, he said “nobody knows” what will happen. “It will all depend on the attitudes of the banks.”

Continued restrictions would also mean many pubs may be no longer viable as a going concern. “I don’t know whether we’ll ever see a day again when people are two or three deep at the counter, I think that day is gone,” he said. “If capacity is limited, the income is limited too.”

Publicans who are cash-rich or who have assets to get them through will fare better than those who have heavily borrowed “who will obviously face a crisis, depending on the attitude of the banks”, he added.

Bar owners speak out about the struggle to stay positive amid Covid’s economic and psychological challenges

Gillian Knight, of the Licensed Vintners Association, which represents publicans in Dublin, said hundreds have been contacting the organisation for help recently.

“Almost all members have been in contact since lockdown,” she said.

Issues raised include government supports, redundancies, stress management and requests for an “interpretation of any latest government announcement”, she said.

“So many are stressed, under financial pressure, feel let down by the Government, disrespected by the way information on reopening is being given informally and without regard for the staff and publicans’ livelihoods,” said Ms Knight. “It’s a long road ahead.”

Ms Knight said because the pubs remained closed it was too early to predict how many would collapse as a result of the lockdown. “There are some publicans who do not have mortgage or loan relief and cannot afford to pay their monthly bills. We expect a lot of closures once the pubs are allowed to reopen.”

Lockdown impact

Brian Foley, of the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI), which mostly represents publicans outside the capital, said sales unsurprisingly took a “massive hit” last year.

The VFI fielded more than 18,000 queries from members last year – a sixfold increase on any given normal year.

“It’s impossible to quantify the impact prolonged lockdown is having on publicans, their families and staff,” said Mr Foley. “We won’t fully understand how many pubs permanently shut because of the pandemic until later this year for the simple reason that all venues are closed at present.”

Figures from property website MyHome.ie show 16 pubs or restaurants advertised for sale or rent so far this year. Last year, there were 216 in total, a figure that has been declining over previous years. Angela Keegan, MyHome.ie managing director, predicted a “spike can probably be expected” in the summer when the toll lockdown has taken on the trade becomes clearer.

Mr Foley said pubs were the first businesses to close last March and it appeared hospitality would be the last sector to reopen. “When that reopening will happen is a source of huge concern within the trade as the Government refuses to publish a roadmap for the trade to exit lockdown,” he said. “When we closed last year nobody could have foreseen where we would be 12 months later. The trade will bounce back when we eventually do reopen, but the question remains how many good pubs will we have lost along the way?”

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