Here's what a night out at the pub will look like if the one metre social distancing rule is implemented
Publicans and restaurateurs are rejoicing at the idea that they will be allowed to reduce social distancing to one metre.
This will make getting customers into their premises much easier, especially as they will be relying on the domestic market this summer.
However, there is a sting in the tail: in return for relaxing the rules on social distancing, they must take on board strict guidelines around meals, time limits and bookings.
It’s a very Irish solution to an Irish problem, as Kevin Doyle explains…
The idea that pubs will have to serve a meal that customers would reasonably expect to pay €9 for has raised a few eyebrows. The internet is full of jokes about punters willing to fork out €9 for a bag of Tayto if it means they can get a pint on the side.
Irish law doesn’t have a lot of detail on what constitutes a ‘substantial meal’ but Fáilte Ireland has pointed to the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1962. It defines proper pub grub as what you “might be expected to be served as a main midday or evening meal or as a main course in either such meal”.
In terms of the price of the meal, the Act says it should not be less than five shillings. Yes, you read that correctly. We are relying on a currency that was last minted in 1968.
Under the law, the Justice Minister may “from time to time” fix the sum at “more than five shillings” if deemed appropriate. It’s understood this assessment was last carried out during the 2000s and at the time €9 was judged to be the modern-day equivalent of five shillings.
There is no evidence that eating a substantial meal will help prevent the spread of Covid-19 – but it might help people spread out. Health chiefs want pubs reopening on June 29 to strictly operate like restaurants. That means everybody sitting down and not cramped on top of one another in a crowded space. Table service will be the new normal so that crowds don’t start queuing around the bar.
As Liam Collins put it, the pub doors will be open - but will the craic be inside?
Sources told Independent.ie: “This will be complicated but in essence we are not talking about a ham and cheese toastie. It must be a proper meal.”
A final say on whether the reopening goes ahead will fall to Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).
Mr Holohan has said that pubs must function in a more orderly fashion and food helps create that environment.
“That’s not the same as us saying that a few fellas getting together for a few pints and having a packet of peanuts constitutes a meal, constitutes a restaurant,” he said.
With sport slowly returning, the 90-minute rule means that pub-goers will not be able to watch a full Premier League game, when you consider half-time and extra time. However, there is no doubt that some drinkers will see the 90-minute time trap as a challenge to sink as many pints as possible before the clock runs out. There is also nothing to stop pub crawls, meaning you could spend 90 minutes in one pub before moving on to the next.
Many publicans have already gone to great effort to make their offering safer, as Laura Lynott recently explained. But a 90-minute limit wasn’t on their list.
The logic for the limit is that the risk of catching Covid-19 grows when you spend time indoors with other people. The current rules only allow for six people to meet indoors at any one time. A pub or restaurant will need many multiples of that to make opening their door viable.
Health-and-safety authorities already have the power to inspect activities in pubs and restaurants but nobody seriously expects them to go around timing drinkers. In reality, it will fall to publicans/restaurateurs to enforce the new guidelines. This is likely to be contentious, as many will not want to upset customers by telling them to leave even if they haven’t finished their meal.
There will also be an expectation that we all adopt a policy of ‘self-regulation’. This will be easier said than done. Social distancing etiquette is now well established in wider society – but that can all fall away very quickly once alcohol is introduced. And while the health advice is to wear to face coverings indoors, they won’t work if people are eating and drinking.
Even during lockdown there were reports of house parties being organised with what Tony Holohan called “abandon”.
“There will come a point in time where we think certain activities that are indoor in nature can happen in controlled ways,” he said.
The new guidelines might sound a bit draconian – but it’s likely the hospitality sector will do its best to work with them. Having been in shutdown since March, many businesses are already on the brink and desperate to just get some customers in again. Galway’s first Michelin star, JP McMahon, has described the two-metre rule as a "suicide run" at the entire industry.
While Fáilte Ireland, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre and the Department of Transport and Tourism are still working on the 'Covid-19: Guidance for Food Service Businesses’, Independent.ie understands they will urge restaurants to stop accepting ‘walk-ins’. You might think this isn’t a very big deal, as you regularly make a booking when going out for dinner anyway. But what about when you’re in town and bump into a friend? Or perhaps most significantly when you are in a hotel and plan not to set an alarm clock? Hotels are likely to begin asking guests to reserve a breakfast slot the night before in order to control numbers in the dining room and allow extra turnover time for cleaning.
The guidelines on food service to be published later this week come on top of a new playbook for post-pandemic staycations, which is explained in great detail by Pól Ó Conghaile.