Wet bar patrons have hailed their reopening as a “special day”.
Customers returned to hundreds of traditional pubs that do not serve food across Northern Ireland on Wednesday following a relaxation of the coronavirus regulations.
New rules in place at the hostelries include no standing at the bar, hand sanitising stations, a sign-in book and table service.
While the settings may have changed slightly, there were still smiles as the Guinness started flowing again, along with the banter between old friends who had been apart for six months over lockdown.
At the Hole In The Wall bar in Armagh city, Casper the resident parrot returned along with the customers.
Landlady Joanne Shilliday joked the parrot had also been on furlough.
Ms Shilliday said the old building, which dates back to 1615 and originally housed the first jail in the city, had survived the bombings and fires during the Troubles and would also survive coronavirus.
“We didn’t expect that we would have had to close for so long but we survived and we got through it, and we just have to keep going, onwards and upwards hopefully,” she told the PA news agency.
“It feels a bit like being back at the beginning – you don’t know what is ahead of you, but it’s nice to see the regulars back and have the staff back.
"We’ll get through it, we’ll do whatever we have to do, whatever regulations are in, we’ll do what we have to to stay open.”
The first customer to return was pensioner Melvin Faulkner who plans to have his ashes brought there when he dies.
“I’ve been coming here for 20 years, I haven’t had a pint of Guinness since this place closed, you come in here and the craic is good,” he said.
At the Maypole Bar, known as Ned’s, in Holywood, Co Down, there were also sighs of contentment from patrons who had loyally waited for it to reopen rather than try one of the bars which sell food that were able to open in July.
John Francis Carty’s family have owned the bar since 1967, and he has been working in it on and off since he was 14.
He said he had missed the craic but said it was a nerve-racking time because “you don’t know what is going to happen next”.
“It’s not a normal day, for me anyway,” he said.
“It’s about people coming in, seeing people, hearing the news, the drink helps, but it’s mainly about the social scene – funerals, weddings, parties, birthdays, winning a bet. I see everything here.
“We have got house rules, if they don’t abide by them, we’ll not serve them.”
Jerry Lang was the first customer to return, and described it as a special day.
“It’s the kind of place were they don’t take any nonsense, you can come in and enjoy your drink and enjoy your conversation without the annoyance of mobile – one of those old traditional proper pubs,” he said.
“It has been a very strange time, I would have been in on a Friday night and Saturday night, you meet your friends. It’s been a long time between getting what I could call your therapy.
“It is a special day, I think it’s long overdue. It was unfair on the pubs that don’t serve food not being able to open.
The reopening of the wet bars came the day after additional restrictions limiting domestic gatherings were imposed in the region aimed at curbing spiralling infection rates of the disease.
The reopening had been pushed back on several occasions by the Executive, while pubs that do serve food were able to reopen at the start of July.
Northern Ireland’s leaders acknowledged on Tuesday that Stormont’s latest Covid-19 messaging had become confused.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill accepted that introducing region-wide restrictions on domestic gatherings just hours before the reopening of pubs that do not serve food appeared “conflicting”, while First Minister Arlene Foster conceded the moves could be seen as “counter-intuitive”.
Both leaders insisted there was sound scientific evidence to justify the contrasting steps.
They stressed that pubs provided more controlled environments where social distancing and infection control measures could be regulated and enforced.
The ministers said the data indicated that spiralling infection rates were linked to transmission in homes.