DUBLIN — Irish pubs are set to re-open on Sep. 21 after weeks of delays, although owners will have tight coronavirus restrictions to follow.
Ireland is one of the last European countries where "wet pubs," which do not serve food, are still closed. These pubs have been shut since March when the pandemic took hold and lockdown measures were introduced.
Under the original lockdown easing schedule, pubs were due to re-open in August but that had been pushed back repeatedly. Pubs that serve food, as well as restaurants and hotels, re-opened in late June under restrictions.
The new rules will put all pubs on a relatively similar footing, requiring table service and limiting group sizes. In cases where two-meter distancing isn't possible, customers can only stay for 105 minutes and all customers must be off the premises by 11:30 p.m.
Pubs will also have to adhere to local restrictions if they arise, which may mean closing again. The decision is welcome but overdue, Donall O'Keeffe, the chief executive of the Licensed Vintners' Association, said.
"We feel there was little justification for the Government to have repeatedly delayed the reopening," he said.
Speaking after a cabinet meeting today, Irish lawmaker Simon Harris, who was health minister at the beginning of lockdown and is now minister of higher education, said that while pubs will re-open, the experience will be different.
"The risk from a public health point of view in such pubs now is no greater than the risk in another setting like a pub with food or like a restaurant, because remember what we're not proposing to do on Sep. 21 is re-open pubs, packed bars, crowded places," Harris said.
"We're talking about allowing a pub to re-open with table service and not having to serve chicken goujons to justify it."
Pub owners have undergone a protracted process in getting the go-ahead to re-open, which has drawn much ire from trade groups.
The delay in August for pubs came as the daily number of new Covid-19 cases in the country spiked to around 120 cases a day on average, up from single- and double-digit figures in July. Health authorities have issued a warning about rising cases in Dublin and Limerick, which may lead to pubs having to close in those counties if local restrictions are put in place.
To offset the frustration over the last postponement, the government introduced a 16 million euro ($18.9 million) support package on Aug. 28 for pubs, in addition to existing support mechanisms. This fell short of the mark in the eyes of pub owners with trade groups calling it "crumbs."
It included a waiver on court fees and a levy related to the renewal of pub and other liquor licenses this year.
Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the Vintners' Federation of Ireland, told CNBC that of the 16 million euro package, around 9 million euros will cover the waiver of license fees, the levy and related court charges.
That will leave 7 million euros, which is around 2,000 euros per pub, to be distributed through grants, Cribben said.
"We were quite clear and recognized that every business was closed from March until Jun. 29 and we were looking for support from Jun. 29 forward. Now if you take Jun. 29, it'll be about 12 weeks that this was meant to cover, it's about 150 euro a week. That won't cover too many costs."
Cribben added that a more effective approach to licensing would have been to extend all licenses by 12 months rather than waiving the fees.
Marie Mellet, the seventh generation of her family to run Mellett's Emporium in Swinford, Co. Mayo, said that the support package does little to address the expenses pubs are still racking up while they're closed.
"We have ongoing costs. Insurance, light, heat, security, pest control, the list goes on. Every pub is different but for us, it would be about 350-400 euro a week," she said. "The support package that we got was 1,600 euros, which is enough for four weeks and we've been closed for (over) 25 weeks."
She added that waiving fees on licenses does not put much-needed money in the hands of pub owners and "that's exactly what we need now."
Pub owners also face possible defaults on mortgages as a six-month moratorium on mortgage payments expires at the end of September. All the while legal battles have been brewing with insurers over the last number of months.
Matthew Hughes, who owns Hughes Bar in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, said there's a very real threat of pubs not being able to weather this storm, which has already lasted six months.
He said pubs closed their doors for the good of public health but have now been left behind.
"To be honest I think it's a slap in the face. We're doing it for the good of everyone," he told CNBC.
When pubs do re-open, they will be looking at a slew of extra expenses in order to stay compliant with social-distancing measures and other restrictions.
Hughes, who also works as an aircraft engineer, said he used the lockdown downtime to renovate his pub for social distancing, which will have an effect on the confidence of punters coming in.
"The major thing of a pub is interaction with your customer, especially in a rural setting. They're coming for news, information and you put table service into that, you don't have the same interaction," he said.