The uncertainty facing 3,500 pubs and their estimated 25,000 staff could linger for months, and possibly years, in the absence of a Covid-19 vaccine and a clear Government strategy to move beyond the emergency response to an “endgame”.
In the wake of the Government’s announcement on Tuesday that non-food pubs, hotel bars, and casinos will not open for another three weeks, thousands of publicans, many in rural areas, are angry, frustrated, and crying out for direction and additional financial support.
Pubs that do not serve food are heading into their sixth month of closure since the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March, and have already faced two false starts for reopening — initially on July 20, and then on August 10.
While other businesses, including gastro pubs and restaurants, reopened at the end of June, thousands of pubs have been left in limbo without any clear roadmap or guidance on how or when they might reopen.
A rise in the number of Covid-19 cases and in the reproductive number in recent weeks was the main reason given for keeping pubs closed — two weeks ago there were 120 new Covid-19 cases, compared to 284 new cases in the past week.
On July 15, the Government accepted the postponement of pubs reopening was a “hammer blow” for the sector. At this time, the daily number of new Covid-19 cases was hovering in the mid-teens and the reproductive number had risen above 1.
This week, as the number of new Covid-19 cases continued to rise to a five-day average of 53 per day, publicans — who were hopeful of reopening their doors next week — were dealt another blow and told to remain shut until August 31 at least.
The decision followed advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), which expressed “significant and growing concerns” about the rise in Covid-19 cases nationally, as well as how and where the virus was spreading.
In the past week alone, 37 new Covid-19 outbreaks were reported and 188 clusters across the country remain active, with eight clusters in meat processing plants and direct provision accommodation.
A small number of cases (12) had emerged in the hospitality sector, but a rise in the spread of the virus in the community was of greatest concern, as the source of infection could not be traced.
NPHET also said pubs and bars posed a particular risk for spreading Covid-19 “as alcohol can make people less aware of social distancing and hygiene/respiratory behaviours” and “loud atmospheres can increase particles emitted and many pubs/bars can be small spaces with poor ventilation”.
To date, 1,763 people have lost their lives to Covid-19 and more than 26,000 people have contracted the virus.
The possibility of moving to phase four, including the reopening of pubs, will be considered again before the end of August.
While the Government sympathised with publicans and staunchly defended its decision, it has failed to clearly signal what contingency plans, if any, are in place.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he could not give any guarantees and accepted that he could not say if pubs would reopen before Christmas.
“We would hope they can, of course (reopen this year), that is the objective, but it very much depends on the numbers.
"It depends on how much we can keep the virus down,” he said, when pressed on the issue.
The Taoiseach acknowledged “particular difficulties” facing pub owners and said the Government will examine the possibility of offering “additional support” to sectors that have not returned to full operation because of Covid-19.
Health minister Stephen Donnelly said there was evidence that when pubs open up, the virus spreads.
“The international evidence shows that when you open up the pubs, unfortunately, despite everyone’s best efforts and intentions, the number of cases does go up,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland on Wednesday.
He said the Government would consider the possibility of easing restrictions on a regional or county basis, and would “respond dynamically” as circumstances changed.
Any sense of dynamism, however, has been lost on the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) and Licensed Vintners Association (LVA), who have spent weeks seeking guidance and asking for a plan.
Both groups say they have been “abandoned” by Government and are now facing into a “full-blown crisis” as publicans struggle to pay mortgages and bills and keep their businesses afloat while not trading.
Incoming VFI president Paul Moynihan pointed out that gastro pubs had shown that they could operate safely, but those not serving food had not even been given a chance.
“They haven’t even given us a chance to prove that we could do it right,” he said, adding that additional financial support will be needed.
“The longer this goes on, the harder it will be to get going again — and the uncertainty isn’t helping.
We’re used to tea and sympathy from politicians, but we need them to stand up now and be counted, and to act on it instead of just talking about it.
Publicans are screaming out for specific guidance so they can prepare and plan for the new socially-distanced normal they will face, if and when they are given the green light to reopen.
LVA chief executive Donall O’Keeffe said it has become increasingly obvious that the Government does not have a plan for the pub sector.
“We’re repeatedly being told that opening the pubs could lead to an increase in the virus," he said.
"Well, when will that not be the case? Was that not a potential issue at the other phases too? With NPHET always urging caution, when will this Government ever reopen pubs?
The Government can’t keep stringing the entire sector along like this. Where is their plan? Where are their supports for the industry?
Vintners also pointed out that house and beach parties were the problem, not pubs, and questioned the evidence for keeping non-food pubs closed.
The Government said its key focus is on keeping numbers low so that schools and health services can resume.
No doubt, the prospect of a backlash from hundreds of thousands of irate parents up and down the country has focussed the minds of ministers as September approaches.
But there are valid questions for the Government on its “dynamic” approach and why contingency plans have not been drawn up to ease the burden and give some certainty to businesses, like pubs, that have not been able to reopen.
Professor Anthony Staines from DCU said the country was past the “emergency phase” and the Government must now make clear its strategy and outline its “endgame”.
The public health expert is among a group of Irish scientists who have again repeated their call for Ireland to adopt a “zero-Covid” policy or otherwise face long-term social and economic consequences.
All pubs, he said, should be treated the same regardless of whether they serve food or not and the government could introduce “tough measures” for pubs and all businesses to ensure compliance, such as immediate fines and closure orders for flouting current public health guidance.
Professor Staines said it was not clear what benchmark the government was using to guide the reopening of pubs: “I don’t think the government has a clear view themselves”.
He said a ‘zero Covid’ response needs to be led by government, which could also consider reopening rural areas with low infection rates while possibly introducing county- or region-wide travel restrictions to keep the virus contained.
Public health services, he said, can deal with small outbreaks as they arise but the spread of the virus through community transmission needed to be closed down.
“Whatever happens, we have another year of this. It’s very much in our own interests to drive this down to as close to zero as we can,” Professor Staines said.
“We’re saying to government ‘what’s your end game’? Is it to struggle on for a year or two years or more until there’s a vaccine?
"Or would it be better to act now,” the DCU Professor said, adding that making masks mandatory in schools and other indoor spaces should be considered.
“We’re not alone but an increasing number of countries are talking very seriously about going down the zero Covid route because it can be done,” he said.