Living and socialising outdoors is beginning to look increasingly likely to play a bigger role in our future social lives – regardless of the relaxation of pandemic restrictions and a much prayed for return to normality later this year.
The rollout of €17m in funding for outdoor dining for cities, towns and villages across the country may seem a relatively small war chest to satisfy the needs of so many urban areas and their accompanying pubs, cafes and restaurants, but you get the feeling it’s just the beginning of what seems likely to become a greater cultural overhaul of how we socialise.
In many ways, the introduction of the smoking ban in pubs and restaurants 17 years ago, back in March 2004, set a train in motion which the fallout from this pandemic is now pushing towards its final destination.
In the early months of the pandemic last summer, parklets started to appear outside cafes and restaurants in Dundalk town centre.
These pod-like seating areas fitted snuggly parallel to footpaths outside establishments.
The initiative was latched onto quickly and became a popular location during those blessedly serene months.
Of course, all talk of outdoor dining and outdoor living, and comparisons to a more continental style of socialising, should be taken with a large pinch of salt here on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
Ireland does not have a climate which lends itself to outdoor living 12 months of the year. And there are even parts of the country – hello Galway – where getting a month without regular downpours is in itself a bonus.
So, can it really be the future for how we wine and dine post-pandemic? In short, ‘no’. There won’t be some tectonic cultural shift to a European model. But it will be here to stay as a welcome appendage to how we do things and will do things going forward.
As a caveat, this will, however, bring about a strange battle of sorts between what constitutes a ‘smoking area’ and an ‘outdoor dining’ area though.
One can only imagine some particularly heated conversations arising as one table is eating their dinner or enjoying a beverage and the one beside them is packed full of smokers belching out clouds of noxious chemicals.
In other words; there’s gonna need to be some thought put into the placement of both these cohorts (sorry to use a word which should never be recycled ever again post-Covid!) and also possibly a legal requirement on what needs to be done.
And also, realistically, can all pubs accommodate such potentially extensive outside lebensraum?
All this talk of living in the outdoors, does beg the question – what will become of our favoured small pubs, with their private snugs and cosy low ceilings, which have little in the way of internal space, let alone savannahs of picnic tables outside? There’s plenty of them about, and they are very much an attraction for arriving tourists (whenever they might return) as much as they are favoured by locals.
In time, people will begin to feel more at ease with the idea of socialising in cramped spaces again.
But it is almost panic inducing right now to even imagine oneself out for a night in a packed pub,
several rows deep, shoulder to shoulder, trying to inch your way to the bar under and around armpits and hips.
But, when this virus eventually becomes an eye-rolling nuisance as opposed to a deadly killer, which will be firmly under our thumb, the want to return to something like that will return. But we simply all need to feel confident that we are protected from Covid-19 before that day can arrive.
Remarkably this year there have been no confirmed cases of seasonal flu in Ireland this winter. This is the first time that has happened since records began 69 years ago.
This speaks to the reality that socialising will always bring an element of danger in terms of the infectious viruses and other ailments we have been spreading around for many years. Human beings existing in close proximity are a potentially deadly bunch of super-spreaders.
Personally, since March 2020 I have not had a cold or other ailment of note to speak of. Rarely a Christmas would have gone by in years past where, at a family gathering, one or two would be sipping on a hot whiskey to self-medicate a head cold or flu.
Never once were these ‘hot whiskey-sippers’ banished to another well-ventilated room or made to self-isolate – we just handed them another hot toddy, gave them a big hug and wished them merry Christmas.
I wonder if a scene like that will play out in the future?
When out of here comes in, and we’re no longer preoccupied with the awfulness of Covid-19, we all have a personal responsibility to look after our own health and make wise decisions for the sake of others.