June 4, 2020 / 12:03 PM / a month ago

Irish pubs say two metre social distancing spells ruin

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland’s usually tightly-packed pubs say they face ruin unless the government eases one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, under which they can only reopen in August and must keep drinkers two metres apart - reducing capacity for some from hundreds to dozens.

FILE PHOTO: A man walks past a pub in Dublin on St. Patrick's Day as public events were cancelled as the number of coronavirus cases grow around the world, in Dublin, Ireland, March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff/File Photo

For Ronan Lynch, owner of The Swan, a small, Victorian pub typical of many in central Dublin where forcing your way to the bar for a pint is usually a selling point, a relaxing of the guidelines will be the difference between reopening or not.

“We’re at the periphery of Europe with a peripheral view of the two-metre rule. No business can operate at 25% capacity. It just doesn’t stack up,” said Lynch, who began a renovation just as Ireland began to shut down its economy in mid-March.

Bars and restaurants in Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Germany have reopened with looser 1 to 1.5 metre guidelines. Operators in the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Iceland that have had to stick to 2 metres have had the benefit of being open since May to try to salvage some of the busy summer season.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, a medical doctor, has suggested a possible halving of the social distancing measure and a speeding up of one of Europe’s most conservative reopening plans if coronavirus cases remain under control, but his top health advisers are more cautious.

Lynch, who is the chairman of Dublin’s Licensed Vintners Association (LVA), said permitting one metre between patrons would boost his capacity to 40 to 50%, about 100 drinkers. Research carried out for the LVA found capacity could drop as low as 12.5% for some without any change.

An easing will still leave pubs and restaurants needing further state support, Lynch said, but will give them a chance of surviving into 2021 when the government hopes a treatment or vaccine can bring an end to social distancing.

Irish pubs, renowned for their bustling atmosphere, have presented the government with a plan to limit drinking to table service, with no live music and staggered access to toilets in a bid to open earlier alongside restaurants on June 29.

They are waiting to hear back.

The guidance will be crucial for pubs, some of whom were criticised for not enforcing social distancing in the early days of the crisis, forcing their closure on the eve of the lucrative St. Patrick’s Day holiday.

Too strict and the one in ten workers dependent on Ireland’s pub-focused tourism industry will remain among the 26% currently claiming unemployment benefits. Too lenient and it could spark a second wave of infections, undoing Ireland’s careful approach.

With Ireland due to enter the second of five stages next week, Varadkar has said he may revise the later phases as soon as Friday, amid growing political pressure.

Pubs say they need a decision and soon so they don’t waste money on refurbishing to the wrong specifications, can figure out how many staff they can need or whether it’s worth reopening at all.

“The government needs to take a leap of faith here, push the button on it and get things open sooner rather than later,” said Lynch.

Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Alexandra Hudson

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