Opinion: Bars and restaurants are being unfairly singled out

Covid anomalies generate sense of unfairness that undermines commitment

 Capel Street: For restaurants and bars, checking certs and taking details for contact tracing is a damned time-consuming exercise. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Capel Street: For restaurants and bars, checking certs and taking details for contact tracing is a damned time-consuming exercise. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

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After Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting wherein Ministers considered the National Public Health Emergency Team’s advice on the next phase of easing of Covid-related restrictions, the Taoiseach told us, “We must double down collectively, as a society, in terms of protecting ourselves.”

His announcement comes after a weekend when both customers and friends remarked to me that it feels like we are all just going through the motions as regards Covid protocols.

Of course we are going through the motions, but that is habit for you.

It is human nature to form habits, and to get into routines. Although I think our restaurant manager’s skin has turned a whiter shade of pale from constant sanitising, which might be taking a good habit too far. Maybe, to a certain extent, it feels like we are going through the motions because we are developing subconscious responses. Like not crossing your hands on the wheel when learning to drive. Developing that muscle memory, learning new behaviour, is an effort that is exhausting at first. We must motor perfectly to pass the test, then it becomes about getting from A to B.

It is also human nature to cut corners.

While we have begun to form good habits around Covid protocols, we are not perfectionists. As a society we are a laid-back folk, running to lax. Like road users, if our behaviour is not policed then we will dabble in double-parking here, break a speed limit there, jaywalk almost anywhere. Remember that old chestnut, adaptability? We adapt to ways around regulations as quickly as to the regulations themselves.

Cup of tea

Without strict enforcement, which we’ve all agreed is not our cup of tea, our adherence to rules and the malleability of our behaviour is directly connected to our skin in the game. As the threat to the lives of our parents, our grannies, and ourselves recedes, our watchfulness wanes, our guard comes down.

For restaurants and bars checking certs and taking details for contact tracing is a damned time-consuming exercise. In terms of staff, it requires the equivalent of a full-time function for a member of our short-staffed team. Do we still do it? Absolutely! Is it still workable? For our business, for the very short term and with wage subsidies, just about.

But during his announcement, the Taoiseach also said that there would be anomalies in the rules applicable to different sectors. For me, this is the heart of the problem we are facing now, a threat greater than habituation, because anomalies generate a sense of unfairness that seriously undermines people’s commitment to being on their best behaviour.

My problem is when the requirement for vaccine passports and other protocols is  limited to restaurants and bars (and now clubs)

I don’t object, as others might, to differentiation between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated (which could be covered off with antigen testing). My problem is when the requirement for vaccine passports and other protocols is  limited to restaurants and bars (and now clubs).

We have over 90 per cent of the adult population vaccinated. What an incredible achievement. What about the remainder? They do not appear to dine indoors. Maybe they go to gyms and hairdressers, to hotels, to work and to football matches.

Level playing field

Speaking of matches, can we please have a level playing field? I note that capacity limits at outdoor sports are to be removed altogether, yet one doesn’t need a Covid cert to get into one.

I object to bars and restaurants (and clubs) being singled out for extra requirements, meanwhile that section of hospitality still shoulders the blame for the spread of the virus.

Since the reopening of indoor dining for hospitality near the end of the summer, we have had several customers ask about whether all of our staff have been vaccinated. Our appalled response: we can’t ask them that! And if we could, we certainly couldn’t tell you! But secretly, for the sake of our team, it’s exactly what we want to know. We’ve also had several job applicants proffer, along with letters of recommendation and manual handling certs, their proof of vaccination. Our grateful response: thanks but we can’t ask you for that.

We can ask our customers, but not my team. I have to say, “Can I just see your Covid cert and some ID” dozens of times every day, so why shouldn’t my hairdresser? (Please don’t take this sentiment out on my locks, Andrea. )

Meanwhile we continue to wear our face masks every minute of the day, and to tackle non-face mask-wearing customers (but I’m just going to the toilet) to the ground. In fact I’m writing a short story, My Face Mask and Me, about our love/hate journey through the pandemic. Stockholm syndrome aside, I’m glad the face mask-wearing mandate is to be continued. No doubt they’re being as habitually employed in offices across the country as they are in our restaurants!

Angela Ruttledge is a restaurateur. She co-owns Monck’s Green and Olive’s Room

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