President Louth VFI: ‘We’re on the rollercoaster of emotions here... let’s get open’
“They want somebody at the front door taking your name for your reservation. (Someone) guiding you to your seat and then the person on the floor takes the order, goes to the bartender and the bartender is behind the counter on their own and serves the drinks and the floor staff brings (them) to the table. So there’s four people straight away that you need. So you’ve four more people together in close proximity.”
Collette Nugent, the Louth President of the Vintners Federation of Ireland poses lots of similar such sticky situations and possible issues that will most likely arise with the reopening of pubs on Monday, during her conversation with the Democrat this week.
She says it’s the realistic enforcement of the practicalities of the guidelines and the lack of tailoring for every individual premises that is causing a lot of head-scratching and stress among the publicans she has spoken to.
The past number of weeks - similar to a lot of people in many industries trying to get working arrangement back to some form of normality - has involved countless Zoom calls and meetings which have aired concerns, fears and straight-up negativity about reopening.
“It’s an uphill battle to figure this out in your brain,” Colette admits. “They’re giving us the time restraints (90 minutes) - which are huge - however, like anything else, we just have to deal with it and police it the best we can.”
It’s a shifting situation though. Colette calls the guidelines a “live document” constantly subject to change, depending on the R infection rate of Covid-19 at any given moment.
“I think it’s probably going to be relaxed a bit by the time the 20th of July opens. We’re hoping we won’t have too many ‘rogue publicans’, that are opening up on the 29th of June, because it could jeopardize their license and their livelihoods.”
She continues: “The anecdotal information coming to us from members is, for the most part, it’s ‘enough already’ - ‘just let us get open’. We’ll worry about everything else when we get the doors open. But there’s big work to be done before we open the doors.”
As she is speaking to the Democrat by phone, Colette is busy in her own pub - The Market Bar in Drogheda. The work to be ready for reopening is constant. It’s also, she says, because publicans do feel a keen responsibility for the safety of their patrons and staff.
“We have training to put in place, PPE and all the protocols - which we will do, because the message we want to get out is that we want to guarantee that anyone that is considering coming to a pub, we are going to guarantee your safety. Your health and safety is paramount to us. Without customers, there’s no pub. If there's no pub, there’s no staff, there’s no music in the future and all the things that come with it.
“It’s our responsibility to care for the public and for our staff and ourselves and naturally we’re not going to put our own health at risk.”
“There is a lot of concern about it (the enforced restrictions) and there is a lot of bad feeling about it,” explains Collette candidly. “But, you know, we all are very aware that people have lost loved ones. People have lost lives in this, so we still are very aware that this pandemic is still out there. So we have got to adhere to the protocols and guidelines.”
But confusion continues to reign to an extent, Collette adds. Exact detail is needed.
“We are picking pieces out of the restaurant guidelines and the pubs that have a food aspect. Pubs that are serving food on June 29th”.... “ to give us a preempt of what we may expect for the 20th of July opening.”
As Collette describes it, the last few weeks have been a “rollercoaster of emotion” for local publicans.
“I think the longer this is going on we have had publicans that have done a complete 360 - ‘I’m not opening for social distancing’ and then they’re ringing me now ‘when are we opening?’
“We’re on the rollercoaster of emotion here, because, one, this is awful, this is terrible, this is frightening and then you get over it a little bit more and you’re thinking ‘what can we do to eliminate this?’ or get round it and deal with it.
“We all know we have to start the economic process in some form. Our biggest concern is that we have had no stimulus package coming from the government. We’ve had no assistance with our insurance.
“We’ve had a little bit of a moratorium with our business rates from Louth County Council, but they are looking for them to be reignited as soon as we open the doors. They’re looking for anyone who’s opening the doors on the 29th of June to begin, you can have a stay of execution for a couple of weeks, but you have to contact them.”
The fears and concerns are on both sides of the bar right now.
Colette explains: “From a publican's point of view, we’re at a Y in the road. Do we go left or right? If we go left, we commit ourselves to opening and all connotations that come with that as regards the PPE, the guidelines, adhering to the policies stc. If we go right, we decide not to open at all.
“And the longer we stay closed, the more problems that come. However, people that have long-established family-run places would be in a better position to do that, because they wouldn’t need to open, if you follow me? So they would perhaps decide to stay closed for another, two months, three months, six months until social distancing is eased.
“I don’t see social distancing being eased for the next six months and it may never ease until they find a vaccine.”
Keeping up to date with any changes as they happen brings with it a constant second-guessing, Collette feels.
“The reality is that they’re ‘live guidelines’, the protocols that come out. So that can change at any time and the reason it can change is because if the R rating is good then restrictions are eased and lifted, if the R rating is bad it of course brings problems. We actually don’t know two weeks from the 29th of June on opening pubs, is the R rating going to spike. If the R rating spikes our concern is, will they delay our opening again? We have some members that are very concerned about that. When I say members that are concerned, they would be elderly members. So their concern is for their health and their staff’s health going forward.
“We have also got members saying ‘will somebody please give me just five pointers to let me get started to know what I’m supposed to do?’”
Colette continues: “We have members that have bought perspex and put it on their counters and made perspex booths and done physical work out the back of their premises to make extra spaces. There’s no support, there’s no money coming in to assist this. But they’ve had to do it to stay open.
“But with the goalposts being shifted all the time, it’s an absolute myriad. It’s a quagmire. You can’t figure it out. But you can only do your best and you have to remember, it’s a live document and it can change at any time. They don’t know. They don’t have the magic wand with all the answers.
“So, week in and week out there’s a different criteria that’s after raising its head. There’s no dear doubt about it that there’s going to be social distancing for the long term. But are they going to insist on staff wearing PPE, etc. There’s lots of guidelines, but some people might decide that they are completely economically unviable, they have to make that choice. But they would have been able to make a little bit better of a choice if we had a little bit of support from the government. We’ve no stimulus package being offered to us. Not to be crude about it, but we need pounds, shillings and pence of an injection to go into your bank account right now to get their cash flow going so they can go ‘right, let’s get started. We can now afford staff, we can now afford to buy our stock and so on.”
The Democrat puts it to Collette that, by the sounds of it, publicans would probably welcome really tough, almost draconian, restrictions, if at least meant they were set in stone and something definite to work with.
“They might not have agreed with that a month ago,” Collette responds, “and there’s probably a few even now that wouldn’t agree, but I think that’s what is needed now. We mightn’t agree with it. We certainly won’t like it, but at least we can work with it.
“Some people won’t want to work with it, or won’t be able to work with it. But the reality is that that is the way it is at the moment. We have no choice but to work with it.
“Dr Holohan and the rest don’t want the pubs to reopen. Let’s be clear about that. They would sooner the pubs stay closed. If anyone is bullying through the phases, the Revenue people are bullying us through the phases. But we got from phase five to four because our R rating stayed good and we did, for the most part, good citizens did what they were asked to do.
“But we got from phase five to four - and this would be my opinion - because the Revenue knew they’re losing a fortune from income from pubs, from our excise duties. I think we’re in the region of €60bn we pay in wages every year.”
Another point of contention and general shoulder-shrugging as regards the practical application of guidelines, concerns toilets in pubs. Colette nods.
“They’re asking us to police the cleaning of the toilets. Now, how are we supposed to do that? So, what they are asking us to do, they are suggesting that we have a rota and that only one person is allowed in the toilet at a time - obviously, if you’ve small toilets. And when I say small, I mean two cubicles in the ladies and one in the mens. But if you’ve got bigger cubicles, obviously once you've got social distancing, then that’s fine. In that situation you can have two people in the toilet at any given time.
“That being said, that’s down to yourself to police that. Now, when one person goes into the bathroom they want us to sanitize it after each use - this is the advice from Bord Failte. But in the eyes of the law, a woman - who is very well placed - said to me that that’s not the case. But you do have to clean the bathroom. So I said if someone’s gone in (to the toilet) am I supposed to go in a spray with a certain product to sanitize the air. ‘Well have you got ventilation?’ ‘Well of course I do, I’ve an extractor fan and I’ve two windows open’, ‘so there'll be no need for that so’. Because the air will be clear
“So this brings us back to clear guidelines. Every place is different and if the HSE come on site, which they will, I’m pretty sure they’re going to endeavour to visit every premises - 7100 pubs in the country. They’ve hired 500 staff for this. So, if they’re going to start visiting, it’s your job - and you’ll not know when they’re coming, and right so, it’ll make you do what you’re supposed to be doing all day, every day.”
There’s a sense of wanting to get on with it and Collette feels there needs to be trust placed in the hands of publicans to do it correctly. As she has pointed out - a failure to comply can lead to the loss of a publican’s livelihood and people’s jobs, not to say the potential health implications.
“We’ve a thousand years of cleaning pubs. We know how to clean our pubs. We’ve been doing it for years. We’re doing the same thing that we’ve always done - keep your pub clean. All you have to do is sanitize it extra and keep people apart. They’re (publicans) overthinking it. And I’m trying to be glib about it and make little of what we have to do, but if we think about it too much, it’s like going to the dentist - let’s get to the clinic, there’s no point, in the days before, worrying, worrying, worrying. Let’s get in, let's get open and let's get at it.”