Telephones at tables, staying 1 meter apart: What Ireland's famed pubs are like in post-coronavirus lockdown world

Ireland's famous pubs are reopening but with strict new rules

July 11, 2020, 10:35 AM

DUBLIN -- James Joyce wrote a "good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub."

Following the coronavirus pandemic the famous Irish writer's puzzle for his home city could be adapted: a good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a closed pub.

The coronavirus sent Ireland into lockdown in early March and for 15 weeks the country's famous pubs closed, depriving it of one of its most recognizable symbols and its residents of its nightlife.

After more than 25,000 confirmed infections and 1,744 deaths, Ireland has moved slowly out of lockdown since late May. Now with only a handful of new cases recorded each day, pubs were allowed to start reopening June 29, two months earlier than originally planned, but only under strict conditions.

For pubs closed for three months and their customers it has been very welcome. But in a socially distanced world, it also means a new and--for now undeniably a little odd-- reality, and one that still poses extreme challenges to pubs' businesses.

"It's going to be a different pub than the one left three months ago," Mark Grainger, who owns Graingers Hanlon's corner in north Dublin, said.

Bars around the world, like other crowded indoor spaces, have been linked to outbreaks of the virus. In South Korea in May, just one nightclub-goer was linked to 80 new infections and a fresh outbreak that prompted the country so close all bars and clubs.

Such concerns have meant Ireland has taken a cautious approach with an industry woven into the country's culture.

Ireland's public health authority has allowed the pubs to reopen in two phases.

In the first phase, from June 29, only pubs serving food can reopen. The rules from Ireland's Health Service Executive require pubs to ensure social distancing: parties can be no larger than six, and they must be 1 meter apart; only table service is allowed—no ordering at the bar—and people must stay seated. Stays are also limited to 90 minutes. Live music is banned to discourage dancing.

PHOTO: A woman waits for a pint of Guinness to settle before serving a customer at Murrays pub, June 29, 2020, in Dublin, Ireland.
A woman waits for a pint of Guinness to settle before serving a customer at Murrays pub, June 29, 2020, in Dublin, Ireland.
Charles Mcquillan/Getty Images

Customers are also currently obliged to order a "substantial meal", meaning food worth at least 9 euros (about $10). That has prompted some pubs to hurriedly rustle up menus. It also means bemused customers finding themselves obligated to order hearty pub fare each time they want to drop in for a pint.

The food rule is due to be lifted on July 20, in the second phase. But dropping in for a pint in any case is no longer quite so simple. The rules have drastically reduced pubs capacity, in many cases by well over 50%.

Most pubs are encouraging reservations and places book up quickly. Servers now meet customers at the door to check to take them to their table and to explain the rules.

The reduced capacity is a huge blow to business. A third of Dublin's pubs have yet to reopen and the city center is still dotted with boarded up pub fronts. Overall, 60% of Ireland's 7,000 pubs are still closed.

It's expected more will reopen once the food rule is lifted, but the dramatically reduced capacities mean most pubs will still struggle. A report commissioned by the Licensed Vintners Association (LVA) this month estimated that most pubs will be trading at only 50% of their "usual" revenue.

In normal times, Graingers pub can hold 170 people downstairs. Now it is limited to 70.

During the lockdown, many pubs turned to deliveries to help keep afloat, delivering freshly poured Guinness in seal pints as well as cans and bottles. Some like Graingers intend to continue the service now.

McGowans, a sprawling north Dublin pub known for late-night dancing previously had a capacity of 960. That is down to around 200, according to Daniel McGowan who manages it.

To maintain its atmosphere, McGowans installed telephones on each table that let guests call other tables.

McGowan said he'd be surprised by how guests -- starved of socializing for three months -- had taken to it.

"There's people sitting at the table just ringing every single phone number on the directory," he said.

The pub had essentially had to learn to work like a restaurant, he said, having to start having sittings. He said he believed the pub had already lost around 30-40% of its revenue for the year and that it was likely going forward it would be taking around half its normal revenue.

"Anything over 60% right now, I'd be very encouraged," he said.

Some 50,000 people are estimated to work in Ireland's pub and nightclub sector and those pubs already reopened are operating with far fewer staff.

Ireland's government is offering to subsidize up to 85% of the wages of businesses' staff paid less than 24,400 euros annually. And it has also provided tax holidays for pubs. Guinness has launched a €14 million fund to help pubs reopen.

The first week saw a flood of customers and in Dublin city center a street party outside a group of pubs. The scenes prompted prime minister Micheál Martin to warn the broader opening on July 20 could be delayed if rules weren't obeyed. Police have launched an operation to monitor pubs' behavior.

Many pub owners are acutely worried that an outbreak around a pub could see the sector closed again. They fear a 'second wave' would be fatal to their pubs.

In many other pubs, servers now meet guests at the door and explain the new rules. At McGowans they are briefed twice, once at the door and again at the table.

Daniel McGowan said they had realised quickly that it was important to reinforce the message to drinkers coming in later. "We're nearly going over the top in how we're explaining to them that this is not what it used to be," McGowan said. "COVID's still out there- that's the thing we have to remind ourselves. And we don't want to be one of the reasons why it's spreading. So you have to stick to the rules."

Even with the constraints though there's relief and happiness to be back.

"It's great to be back. It's great to be just back," McGowan said.