Taoiseach fails to give clarity to publicans on whether €9 meal rule will be scrapped for Summer 2021

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The LVA also wants an end to the distinction between ‘wet’ pubs and venues serving food.

Updated Tue 5:57 PM

THE TAOISEACH WOULD not be drawn today on whether the difference between “wet pubs” and “gastro pubs” will be scrapped this summer.

Publicans have said today that reopening plans should not see restaurants and gastro pubs open before the traditional ‘wet’ pubs.

The Licensed Vintners Association (LVA), which represents Dublin publicans, told an Oireachtas Committee today that “this artificial distinction between food businesses and wet pubs” must be ended.

The called for guarantees that the €9 meal rule will not be a feature once a wider reopening of society begins and sought guidance on what percentage of the community needs to be vaccinated before the various stages of reopening can be considered.

Last summer, some pubs serving food were allowed to reopen alongside restaurants with a rule that a customer had to have a “substantial meal” to go with their pint. So-called ‘wet’ pubs were only able to open for a few weeks in the autumn while in Dublin pubs in this sector never reopened at all.  

The LVI maintains the €9 meal requirement is an “outmoded regulation” and want clarification that it will not be re-introduced

When asked recently if such a regulation would feature this summer, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the government would be “looking at this afresh” this year.

However, when asked today by The Journal about whether the compulsory meal will be scrapped and if all pubs can reopen at the same time, the Taoiseach said:
“We are not going there.”
The government will make its position clear next week, he said, stating that there was no point in speculating on the easing of restrictions. 
Last year the Taoiseach said the “demarcation line between pubs with pizza” and those that don’t serve food was “becoming untenable and lacking credibility over time”.
 
The Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, a group that represents 4,000 family pubs, said a clear statement from government that all hospitality outlets will be allowed to open at the same time, under the same conditions and subject to the same sanctions, needs to be made.

“No more divides between food and non-food,” they state.

VFI chief executive Padraig Cribben appealed for the Government not to leave it until the last minute to inform them.

Cribben said: “We’re not looking for specific dates… we need to know the level of vaccination that’s going to be required to reopen.”

He said outdoor dining was not a viable option for the majority of Irish pubs and restaurants.

“The one thing we know is that we can get a bout of hailstones as much as a bout of sunshine in the month of July or August,” he said.

“Talking about outdoor dining in an Irish context is, by and large, a red herring. Businesses will not be viable as outdoor (operations) particularly if you take constituencies where there is a big dependency on tourism.”

“The sector now needs a clear roadmap outlining the conditions that need to be in place for re-opening – level of vaccination, community transmission, hospitalisation etc. Hope is needed. There is none. Such a roadmap would provide hope and help to reduce stress levels,” he added.

Under the government’s updated roadmap for reopening, currently only take-away food and drink is allowed for all restaurants and pubs. Under Level 4 no indoor dining is allowed but outdoor dining is – limited to a maximum of 15 people.

From Level 3 down indoor dining is permitted with a sliding scale of restrictions. 

The LVA told the Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht today that it understands the specific reopening dates cannot be provided at this time.

However, it is called on the government to publicly communicate the circumstances that must apply to allow the full reopening of the hospitality sector. 

Specifically publicans called for details around what percentage of the adult population will need to be vaccinated to allow all pubs and hospitality businesses to reopen, as well as what level community transmission must be at.

The LVA asked in its statement: “Will it be the case the pubs/hospitality can only reopen for vaccinated customers?”

In Israel, where over half the population has received its first dose of the vaccine, members of the public can now apply for a ‘green pass’ which proves they have been vaccinated and can therefore can re-enter gyms, restaurants, and other cultural venues.

This pass is only required for indoor spaces, while outdoor spaces will reopen for everyone.

Meanwhile, in the US, older people, who represent the vast majority of Americans who are fully vaccinated, are heading back out to bars and restaurants in recent days.

Publicans also argue that significant financial supports will be needed even after reopening of the sector, while also stating that prior to them opening their doors, pubs will need a “significantly enhanced” Restart Grant.

Restauranteurs also sought indications of what the summer could look like.

The Restaurants Association of Ireland told the committee today that hospitality businesses are on the brink of collapse, with 50% of restaurants facing permanent closure.

Adrian Cummins, CEO of the association, maintains the current business supports “do not go far enough”.

A restart grant for three weeks is needed for reopening costs, he’s set to tell members – as well as the extension of the commercial rates waiver. The current VAT rate of 9% must remain in place until 2025, Cummins said.

“As we start on the road to recovery, the challenges we have are little to no payment by insurance companies on business interruption claims, landlords seeking full rents for the period of closure, utilities providers disconnecting services to restaurants and hospitality
businesses, and a lack of joined by approach by state bodies with responsibilities for tourism and hospitality,” the committee was told.

“We need a plan for reopening, We need a plan to reemploy staff and above all our industry needs HOPE,” Cummins said.

The comments come as councils say they are working to provide more outdoor space for hospitality businesses such as pubs and restaurants. 

Earlier this month, The Journal reported that Tánaiste and business minister Leo Varadkar was encouraging local authorities to “do what they can” for local restaurants and cafes by supporting outdoor seating where possible in towns and cities this summer.

While it’s hoped lockdown measures will be further eased as the vaccination programme is ramped up from the second quarter of the year, the chair of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) epidemiological modelling advisory group, Philip Nolan has said it’s clear “we’re looking at an outdoor summer” in 2021.

It’s expected outdoor dining will return before pubs, cafés and restaurants can open more fully. 

Outdoor space

The comments from the RAI come as councils work behind the scenes to open up public spaces that can be used by pubs and restaurants when it is safe for them to reopen. 

Dublin City Council has said it fully committed to assisting hospitality businesses access the public domain to assist them in staying sustainable and providing safe spaces for their customers. 

Prior to the pandemic, Dublin City said it had approximately 190 street furniture licences, but since the onset of Covid-19, Dublin City Council has facilitated an additional 76 temporary street furniture permits.

Fees for both street furniture licences and temporary permits have been waived, and this will continue to the case into the near future.

In a statement, the council it delivered a coordinated plan for the Smithfield area to facilitate outdoor dining in the Summer of 2020.

“We delivered coverings, tables and chairs last Summer and we are now looking to expand the project providing light and heat as well as expanding to other parts of the square and we are currently in the process of investigating how we can expand similar projects for Capel St, South Anne St, Duke St and Newmarket Square.

“Sections of South William Street, Drury Street, Dame Court and South Anne Street are due to be pedestrianised after 11 am each day as soon as is practicable, but this is on hold awaiting the lifting of relevant public health restrictions,” it said.

The trial pedestrianisation in and around these streets was very successful last year, said the council, stating that it will again support social distancing, outdoor dining and should also serve as an attraction for bringing people back into the city centre.

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The council is also examining the feasibility of various proposals on a number of streets that would support hospitality businesses to operate outdoors through a re-allocation of the existing road space usage and this is something the Council hopes to roll out over the coming months in consultation with relevant stakeholders. 

The council is also investigating ways to provide additional public toilets across the city.

Local authorities

With restaurants and cafes being put on notice that they are likely to have their customers sitting outside come hail, rain or shine this summer, there are concerns about the different approaches that some county and city councils might take.

Other councils, such as Cork County Council, have stated they want to be proactive in supporting business and retailers – insisting that a key objective for this summer is to maximise the use of outdoor space. 

“The council is collaborating with the hospitality sector in promoting the use of outdoor street furniture,” Cork County Council said. 

The council has also streamlined its processes for administering street furniture license applications and has waived the administration fees.

Cork City Council said it had brought forward proposals to permanently pedestrianise 17 streets and is preparing for a possible increase in demand for street furniture licenses. 

Galway County Council said it has successfully secured three tranches of funding to adapt towns and villages in the county to the changed environment since the start of the pandemic.

The council noted that in many rural towns there are extremely limited locations where the possibility of road closures can be considered as there are no alternative suitable diversions available but said it is happy to consider any proposals and applications for the scheme.

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