The Irish Times view on reopening the pubs: proceed with caution

It’s harder to reimpose social restrictions than it is to impose them for the first time, but we should be less tolerant of risk in pubs than we are in schools

While some of the lobbying from the drinks industry has been over the top, there has undeniably been an element of arbitrariness to the Government’s approach to the sector. Photograph: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

While some of the lobbying from the drinks industry has been over the top, there has undeniably been an element of arbitrariness to the Government’s approach to the sector. Photograph: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been exceptionally tough on Irish publicans, especially the 60 per cent of them whose establishments do not serve food and have therefore been closed since March. The financial hit suffered by owners and their staff has been severe, and the loss of the principal social outlet in many small towns and villages has worsened the sense of isolation that many people have felt over the past six months. There has undeniably been an element of arbitrariness to the Government’s approach to the sector. By opting not to allow “wet pubs” to reopen in July, when the number of cases of the virus was very low, the Government set an extremely high bar for a relaxation of the rules and ensured that, when it did eventually shift position, it would seem to be acting incoherently.

Now, sure enough, at a time when incidence of the virus is rising steadily and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has openly aired the threat of another lockdown, the Government has decided that all pubs shall be allowed to reopen from September 21st. As publicans point out, the decision will bring the State into line with the rest of Europe. But if the policy is not to result in a spike in new clusters, the reopening must be done sensibly. We know that Covid-19 thrives where people gather in enclosed spaces. Pubs must adhere to strict rules on social distancing and configure their public spaces in such a way that minimises the risk of person-to-person transmission. Those rules must be enforced and breaches penalised, with closures if necessary. The Government should also build flexibility into the new regime. It seems wrong-headed to be relaxing restrictions in Dublin and Limerick, where public health officials are concerned about rising case numbers.

It’s harder to reimpose social restrictions than it is to impose them for the first time. But we should be less tolerant of risk in pubs than we are in schools. That means that if it emerges in the coming weeks and months that pub reopenings are linked to a spike in outbreaks, the Government should not hesitate to close their doors again.

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