The President of the Louth branch of the Vintners Association of Ireland has told LouthNow.ie that the decision to keep pubs closed until August 10 is “completely unacceptable”, labelling the move ‘deplorable and disgraceful’, saying that any spread of Covid-19 in the future will lead to publicans being ‘vilified’.
Just minutes after news started to filter through that the government were to push back Phase 4 reopening by three weeks, a stage that included the reopening of ‘wet’ pubs, Colette Nugent, President of the Louth branch of the Vintners Association of Ireland, Colette aired her displeasure at the move, although when asked if the decision had taken her by surprise, she confirmed it hadn’t.
“No, it hasn’t taken me by surprise but it has still angered me greatly,” she told LouthNow.ie on Wednesday evening. “The fact that they were leaving it so late in the day to tell us this is completely unacceptable. We’ve all taken in thousands of euros of stock. We’re left sitting with that stock now, some of which will be sitting there – just on the cusp of the date.”
“We are treated like second class citizens. We were the first sector to close and we have treated deplorably, disgracefully. I think it’s incredulous. Publicans won’t stand for this.
“It doesn’t matter how many more people are diagnosed with Covid – the publicans will be blamed. 100%. We will be vilified once again, the greedy publicans. We were resided to the fact we were waiting until August 10 with a support from the stimulus package. That never came through and now we’re kicked in the teeth.”
As part of the government’s original roadmap for reopening, pubs that did not serve food – ‘wet’ pubs – were slated to open on August 10, but with new cases of Covid-19 on the decline and other sectors reopening with no complications, that date was brought to Monday, July 20. Until yesterday when, citing a rise in the R rating and a new rise in confirmed cases, that date was pushed back. The reproductive rate, or ‘R number’, indicates the number of people on average that an infected person will pass the virus on to.
That leaves publicans, who had been preparing for weeks ahead of the July 20 date, with another spell of uncertainty and new stock to try and return. Colette believes pubs, unlike any other business, are feeling the brunt of these decisions.
“I’m flabbergasted. None of it makes sense. Are they going to tell the ones already open, gastropubs or Penneys to close? Our suppliers are not going to take the stock back off us. Here we, starting off with debt again. It just doesn’t make sense. The reality is if you wish to close the pubs down and go back to the original date of August 10, you may close everything down as well.
“I don’t want to trivialise this but it’s like giving a child a lollipop and then taking if off them. We have bent over backwards, trained staff, there’s people that have put in tens of thousands of PPE [and safety measures] into their premises to prepare for July 20th. And yes, it will still be there in three weeks but three weeks now is only a guideline.
“You can’t contain it. What’s the point of closing the pubs?,” Colette, who manages The Market Bar in Drogheda, said. Will this additional three week wait push some pubs in Louth over the cliff edge?
“No doubt about it – I was talking to a female publican and an elderly male publican this morning and I’m feeling sick just thinking about it. They said, “We’re finished.” I’m fearful. I’m upset for a lot of older publicans. I’m fearful for people who rent pubs, who lease pubs and that have huge mortgages. It’s upsetting.
“Anybody that was on the fence about reopening, they’ve just pushed them off the fence and they’ve now decided that’s it,” she continued. “I know two places that will not reopen – one in Drogheda and one in Dundalk, well known places.”
“The pub is where people come to commiserate, celebrate. We have an awful lot of elderly people in this country, a lot of single people living alone. We are the drop-in centre, we are the priest, we’re the solicitor, we are the nurse, we’re the counsellor. The connotations of this, not to be dramatic, but on mental health in this country is mind-blowing. It’s frightening.
“We needed this leg up to get a little bit of cash flow. No one was going to make money by opening. Our goal was to break-even. We were only going to be 40% capacity. Lots of food pubs in Drogheda and Dundalk haven’t reopened. Why? Because they know it’s not cost effective. We’re looking at the worst possible recession the state has ever seen.”
Pubs that served food first reopened, along with cafes and restaurants, on June 29. Gardai have been tasked with policing licensed premises across the country, as part of Operation Navigation. Gardai in Louth last week confirmed a high level of compliance with public health regulations, something that has been mirrored nationwide, Gardai say, with thousands of checks on premises across the country since the operation first launched on July 3.
Colette says that publicans want the chance to show they can operate their business and comply to those same regulations.
“As angry as we all are, we knew we probably weren’t going to open because we had no guidelines. The restaurants and hotels had their guidelines 11 days before they opened. We’re two business days away,” Colette told us. “The right thing to do is close everybody down. What if some millionaire publican brings a class action suite against the government? We’re trying to work with them as best we can – but they’re not working with us.
“Why are we being vilified if they’re not prepared to close the ferries, the airlines, the hairdressers, beauticians, the Penney’s, the multinationals. Why are we the ones kept closed? The answer, the throwback is – because we serve alcohol. And their point is what? They’ve treated us like children.
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“We have nearly 1000 years experience of running pubs in Drogheda. We know what we’re doing. We have not been given the opportunity. There is an awful lot of anger, upset and disillusionment. These are guidelines, not law.
Colette added: “We were asked to close, we closed. The insurance company said we closed voluntarily, we’re not covered. We’re doing what we’re asked to do, not told to do. 24 hours ago we could have saved tens of thousands. We have all this stock now and we have to get on the phone and ask suppliers if they’ll uplift the stock. Everyone was flat out trying to meet demand.
“People are not going to stay closed and now the government are going to threaten taking their license away,” she said, adding that her 86-year-old father, the proprietor of The Market Bar, was “like a child at Christmas” in anticipation of the reopening.
“The 29% of restaurants, gastropubs, hotels, whatever that are open – they are showing they are quite capable of doing this. They are open and trading and have booking slots and all that. They’re doing it. Anything was better than nothing. Get people off the live register, get the pub open, get the lights on and get back trading and do what we are here to do. It’s just wrong.”
Speaking on Morning Ireland on Thursday morning, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said public health advice showed that if pubs reopened now, it could “materially add to the possibility of a second wave” of Covid-19 nationwide. Today, the government said that they are prioritising the pathway to reopen to schools and healthcare facilities.
“We are essentially prioritising schools, healthcare facilities, the economy over the accelerated opening of the pubs,” the Minister hold host Bryan Dobson on the flagship RTE show. “This was not done lightly. We really do understand that there are publicans waiting and hoping that they would be able to open on Monday.”
Colette is buoyant about the longer term prospects of the pub industry – nationwide and in Louth. There are 187 licensed premises currently in county Louth. Around 60–70% of pubs in the county are not open.
“The pub industry will recover. It is still a very viable business. People like us, dyed in the wool publicans, blood, sweat and tears publicans – we’ll still be here. It’s a scary, frightening time. Some pubs, unfortunately, won’t come back. But as sector, we’ll still be here,” she concluded.
/ Colette Nugent, Louth Vintners Federation Branch President, on guidelines for pubs
“The guidelines are a disaster. Wet pubs do not have any guidelines – not from the government, our federation, from Failte Ireland, from NPHET, from HSE, from HSA – we do not have guidelines.
“We are working on the restaurant and hotel guidelines. In fairness to Failte Ireland, they did a better job than the HSE. The HSE and HSA are not even on the same hymn sheet. The HSE and HSA stood on a premises in Louth and actually nearly had a row over the guidelines. One was contradicting the other. The publican threw his hands up in the air and walked away. He said ‘When you figure it out, let me know.’
“He’d called them on-site to get his kitchen checked so he could open.
“The guidelines do not make any sense – 32 pages of gobbledygook. It’s like reading an insurance policy.”