Alison O'Connor: Safe, sound, and fully vaccinated — and yet life still feels so uncertain now

Despite an idyllic summer in a place that will always be home, I cannot help but wonder how we will be living this time next year
Alison O'Connor: Safe, sound, and fully vaccinated — and yet life still feels so uncertain now

Despite enjoying a summer holiday in an Irish beauty spot, not to mention seeing the success of the vaccine rollout, there is still a sense of unease and uncertainty about what the future will bring. Picture: iStock

It’s hard to know what to think really. How are we supposed to live now? We’re in a better place but the danger still lurks. Why, looking back on it, do I remember feeling safer during our first summer of Covid rather than this one — even though I’m fully vaccinated now?

Life is filled with far more questions than answers at the moment. When it comes to Covid, an uncertain future is a given. Vaccination has certainly altered the outlook, but not brought about the level of change that we might have first been contemplated.

I was privileged enough — not a day went by when I didn’t realise it — to have spent an extended period in my native West Cork this summer. After monotonous months of the same urban 5km in Dublin, with very little green and no sea, it’s been such a balm for the soul to be surrounded by both.

The same, only different

The surroundings remain wonderfully consistent, but so much else is different. There has been loads of Covid about, in younger unvaccinated people, just as in the rest of the country. Then you hear of the adults, fully-vaccinated, who also got it, albeit a more mild dose.

'Most of the restaurants are operating significantly reduced hours. Often they are open only a few nights a week, or decide to close on a random night, or close a night that it is raining... Picture: iStock
'Most of the restaurants are operating significantly reduced hours. Often they are open only a few nights a week, or decide to close on a random night, or close a night that it is raining... Picture: iStock

It’s certainly been busy, very busy around the place. Just like last year, there are all the extra people who would normally holiday abroad. Indoor dining is now available. Personally, I’ve zero interest in that right now. Anyway, for anyone coming down on holidays looking to eat out, I’ve advised them that most of the restaurants are operating significantly reduced hours. Often they are open only a few nights a week, or decide to close on a random night, or close a night that it is raining. The same can go for shops operating reduced hours or not opening at all on particular days.

But, talking to someone I know who works in Dublin City centre, they said it is impossible to go for lunch in a restaurant up there. Places simply are not open. They also mentioned being on Henry St around 8pm on a recent Tuesday night, and Grafton St on a Friday night at 11pm. Both were empty.

“It’s not good, there was simply no life at all,” I was told.

So it’s absolutely booming in certain spots and eerily quiet in the capital city. We’ve had all this talk over decades of how to rebalance economic growth between cities and towns — might Covid have now brought this about to some extent?

'It’s not good, there was simply no life at all,' one person said, commenting on the eerie quiet on the normally bustling streets of Dublin. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
'It’s not good, there was simply no life at all,' one person said, commenting on the eerie quiet on the normally bustling streets of Dublin. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

How much of what is going on has to do with forming new habits? Google will give you a wide range of answers when it comes to how long it takes for something to become a habit. Over a year and a half is a significant period of time and you wonder how many people may have simply fallen out of the habit of going to a restaurant or a pub. How many, like me, remain nervous about dining inside?

Homes under the hammer

Still. If you’re one of those people contemplating a move from city to country, you’ll need deep pockets. Most gossip mills in seaside locations around the country probably have a tale similar to the one I heard this week. It centred around a magnificent house, with stunning seas views, not on the market, but just sold after the owner “received an offer he could not refuse”.

The frenzied property market is definitely not confined to the cities. I ran into an estate agent down here in recent weeks who confirmed the market is gone crazy.

He said that, clearly, that is good news financially for people like him, but added that it is a “horrible” market to be involved in.

Asked to explain, he said an offer can be accepted on a house but things might stall then for a few weeks afterwards because professionals such as solicitors and engineers are so busy. But such is the impatience and, you have to conclude, greed, that impatient sellers will demand the house be put back up for sale because there is more money to be made in the rising market. 

The buyers are a broad group apparently — the people who want to move out of the cities as a result of Covid, others who have decided now is the time to retire, as well as the usual holiday home buyers. It makes for a very squeezed market for the locals.

Back to the hospitality industry. 

There are significant staffing issues. It’s said to be more complicated than last year’s staffing situation which could be more directly traced to the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP). This year, similarly, a number have also chosen to stay on the PUP. There are young people who might have usually taken up summer jobs but who have saved enough on the pandemic payment over the winter months. Others preferred not to work until fully vaccinated. But in many cases now, those who traditionally worked in the tourism or hospitality industry changed career after the lengthy shutdowns.

Restaurants and bars are permitted to resume indoor service — but Covid support schemes may be creating some perverse incentives in the hospitality trade. Picture: iStock
Restaurants and bars are permitted to resume indoor service — but Covid support schemes may be creating some perverse incentives in the hospitality trade. Picture: iStock

The PUP and other Covid supports are no doubt also playing a role in those restricted opening hours by creating some perverse incentives. Under the Covid restrictions support scheme (CRSS) businesses were given up to €5,000 per week, but this payment was doubled to €10,000 in the three weeks around reopening to help with costs as the scheme ended.

Then, under the employment wage subsidy scheme (EWSS), there is a flat rate subsidy per employee if your turnover has fallen by 30%. This scheme has been extended to the end of the year.

Those who traditionally holiday in Ireland in summertime will already have been familiar with those signs on the counter stating “cash only”. You’d always wonder how this washed with the Revenue Commissioners.

Well, we can wonder some more because there are even more “cash only” places now, with the signs stating: “Sorry, card machine out of order". There are tales of business owners who plan on putting the summer cash on the books in November as another way of protecting that EWSS payment. Rightly or wrongly, I find it difficult to crank up my outrage-ometer here. 

The flip side is the seasonal businesses I know that were hit by Covid and had to close their doors for extended periods during the busiest weeks of the year.

I’m happier to live in a society where the financial protections of the State were thrown around struggling businesses affected by those lengthy lockdowns, rather than not. In Government circles they are sanguine enough about what is going on: Once the summer season winds down and the budget approaches, the necessary changes will be made.

Whatever our preferred summertime escape — and no matter how much of a balm to the soul it's been — we're all wondering how we will be living this time next year. Picture: iStock
Whatever our preferred summertime escape — and no matter how much of a balm to the soul it's been — we're all wondering how we will be living this time next year. Picture: iStock

It’s always difficult when the summer break is coming to an end and you’re contemplating a long winter. It’s all the more so this year. Pandemics are very tough. There is so much upheaval. I cannot help but wonder how will we be living next summer.

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