Bars have been open in Northern Ireland for just under three months now, with many of us embracing the chance to get back into our favourite haunts.
But they still face numerous challenges due to Covid restrictions in place.
Chief amongst them are social distancing rules, which limit how many customers can be inside a venue at any given time.
Read more:Belfast bars and beer gardens accepting walk-ins this summer
Bar owners say these rules have had an effect on profitability, as well as things like atmosphere and customer service.
As the UK continues to ease restrictions, we asked people in the hospitality industry whether we should be calling for an end to social distancing in bars.
Colin Neill, Chief Executive of Hospitality Ulster, said that we need social distancing removed for outlets to move forward towards recovery.
Speaking to Belfast Live, Colin said: “Social distancing doesn’t work well for non-food pubs, it’s having a massive impact there.
“Traditionally, those pubs would make their trade over a couple of nights a week where they’d do really good business, and they’re designed for standing.
“You take a normal pub, they might have seating for 20, but standing for 100. So these rules are really impacting them, they’re trading well below profitability.
“We need social distancing removed, the way it has been in England, because what we have now is seriously affecting the viability of these businesses.”
13 March 2019, Mandatory Credit ©
Colin believes there is ground for restrictions easing as businesses and pub-goers can be given guidance on how to be Covid safe, rather than a blanket set of rules that don’t work for individual businesses or sectors.
He added: “I think the middle ground is that many business owners are saying, ‘let’s get in guidance’. Let’s be honest, there’s a level of personal responsibility.
“If we’re working with guidance, and things were spiking, the premises themselves would impose regulations, because they wouldn’t get customers, as customers would only go if they felt safe.
“I think there’s a degree of personal responsibility for publicans and customers. England are moving towards a system of guidance, and that would allow you to look at your business model and decide if you can do it, or if not, you’d bring in restrictions.”
Colin also believes that the rules faced by bars have been inflexible, causing them more difficulties.
He said: “An example is that they brought in the table-service-only method in places like Costa Coffee and McDonald’s, then they realised that it doesn’t work in all circumstances, so they changed it. In my view, they should have flexibility for other sections of hospitality.”
Colin is now appealing to the Executive to give clarity on when these regulations will go as he fears some businesses could hit crisis point.
He continued: “It’s not viable to put up with this for too long. I’ve requested a meeting with the First and Deputy First Minister. They’ve indicated that these regulations may go this September, but we need to know what, how, and when.
“With businesses it’s not a case of going broke overnight, it’s a long process where you become nonviable, where your debts are worse than your value, then you become insolvent.
“We’re not into our recovery stage yet, and it’s going to be that period where bills will start piling up again, where many businesses might get to the stage where that debt burden is too much.
“Many people think right now, ‘If you’ve got this far and made it, you must be OK.’ That’s not the case. The industry is still incredibly vulnerable.
“It’s going to be 2022 before we see a return to profitability. So businesses need support.”
Bar manager Richie Keenan, of the Hatfield House, said that social distancing has not been ideal, but that customers have been good about adapting to the changes in bars.
He said: “Customers in general have been really good about it and have done their bit to adhere to the rules. They’ve done there best and I think it’s important to stress that they’ve been really great about it.
Manager Richie Keenan at Hatfield House on Belfast’s Ormeau Road.
(Image: Justin Kernoghan/Belfast Live)
“But look, it’s sort of the opposite of what we do in normal times.
“Pubs are about bringing people together, at their heart. In a world which has become so remote, with mobile phones and stuff, pubs bring people together.
“Social distancing is the opposite of that. It’s altered our combined experience in the pubs. We want to get back to what they’re really about.
“Being able to go down to the pub and meet someone completely random and have a shared experience, that’s what we want to see. Whenever it’s possible to see the end of social distancing, that’s when we’ll fully be back to being able to give the experience that we love to give.”
Despite this, Richie said he isn’t pushing to have social distancing restrictions lifted.
He added: “To be honest, all the guys who work in the bar, we’re sitting saying, listen to whatever the doctors say, because that’s what we should follow.
“If the Chief Medical Officer says we need social distancing, in my view, we need it. Plenty of people are making sacrifices.
“If Michael McBride says we need it, my view is, that’s what we should do. It seems to be that every time we’ve strayed from the medical advice, the situation gets worse and more prolonged.
“So if we need to do social distancing until the vaccines get banged out, let’s do it. Then that’ll mean the final end of social distancing will be all the better.”
But Richie says the social distancing measures have had an obvious hit on business.
He said: “It massively affects your profitability in terms of how many people you can bring it. It affects your running costs as well.
“The flip side of that is that the people in Belfast have been absolutely brilliant at coming out and supporting their locals. People who would religiously come to the pub on a Saturday or Sunday, they’d call in a few times on a Monday or a Tuesday, just for a few pints, just because they know it’ll give you a pull out. People have been amazing at supporting us.
“The other thing it affects as well is your atmosphere. We don’t have the packed-to-the-rafters pub when there’s an important match on on a Saturday or Sunday.
“That helps generate business, because people are saying, ‘That’s an experience I don’t want to miss out on.’ We don’t have that X-factor yet of people saying, ‘I could watch this on TV but I want to go to the pub because that’s where the craic is.’ We want to get that back at the moment.”