Pints on Friday? NI lockdown easing ‘chaos’ as beer gardens and restaurants struggle with new rules before Friday opening

Pubs and restaurants looking forward to opening outdoor beer gardens and dining spaces on Friday are being faced with a state of “chaos” around the rules, an industry body has warned.

Wednesday, 28th April 2021, 12:47 pm
Updated Wednesday, 28th April 2021, 1:01 pm
A member of staff serves drinks in the beer garden at the Bier Halle, Glasgow, where outdoor areas have already reopened to the public

The next phase for easing lockdown restrictions kicks in on April 30, with both licensed and unlicensed premises allowed to welcome customers into outdoor spaces.

Other easements including the reopening of all retail, gyms, swimming pools, the lifting of curfews on takeaways andoff-licenses, the opening of caravan and self-contained accommodation, and an upward revision of the number of people who can meet in a private garden to 15 fromthree households.

But the number of beer gardens and outdoor dining areas set to open is hanging in the balance, according to the industry body Hospitality Ulster.

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The organisation say the “late clarification of regulations” has “caused chaos and left many businesses unable to open and out of pocket unnecessarily”.

One business which appears to have been caught out is Mourne Seafood.

The restaurant’s Twitter account posted the following message on Tuesday: “So we have just been told by [Belfast City Council] that we have to remove the cover or the sides of our outside area . If not we won’t be allowed to open next Friday.”

The restaurant added: “This is the exact same set up we used all last summer. This is after spending £25,000.”

A spokesperson for Hospitality Ulster said: “With only 10% to 15% of hospitality businesses having access to outdoor space, the current regulations will mean even fewer premises will be able to reopen on Friday.

“This is a critical moment for hundreds of business owners across Northern Ireland. The regulations need to be adapted as they are not conducive to the proper reopening that the sector was promised.”

The industry body spokesperson continued: “Members are being forced to accept a set of rules that have not been consulted upon with the industry and, once again, expectations of what the Executive Office want to see — and what the sector need to do to get their doors open — are mismatched.

“What we are now seeing is that the misguided and draconian regulations are being intepreted in such a way that many who thought they might have been able to open, are being told they can’t after significant investments being made.”

Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said: “As we get closer to the first wave of reopening outdoor, our members are getting in contact in their droves, worried that they won’t be able to get back to business as the regulations and their interpretation are far too stringent.

“In reality, the idea of outdoor being opened again is meaningless if only a relatively small number of venues can actually make it work. Many will have prepared for reopening by buying thousands of pounds worth of stock to replenish their empty bars, only to be told that their set up does not meet teh regulations, despite being open to the same standard in previous failed reopening phases.

“This is not the time to be playing with the livelihoods of business owners and we are demanding that the Executive intervenes and remedies this. A level of common sense needs to be brought to this problem as the sector has worked so hard and taken every precaution to get the outdoor element open this weeked. We need the Executive to engage with us and be pragmatic about this real and present issue that we are facing in the next couple of days.”

Meanwhile, a leading Belfast licensing lawyer has warned outdoor pubs and restaurants not to take “unmitigated risks” when premises re-open on Friday.

Christopher Bullock, from O’Reilly Stewart Solicitors, said next year is a key date for hospitality outlets with over 1,800 liquor licences across Northern Ireland up for renewal — an event which only happens every five years.

He said that with licences at a premium, pubs and bars are being urged not take risks with their licences in the short term.

“Covid-19 may well have permanently changed how we go to the pub or restaurant and while operators are keen to get back up and running this weekend, they must not adversely impact the long-term viability of their licence by taking unnecessary risks when re-opening,” he added.

“Under the current restrictions only those venues with adequate and suitable outdoor space are permitted to reopen and while outlets will want to maximise this opportunity after months without trading, selling alcohol in unlicensed beer gardens or outdoor areas or carrying out alterations to the premises without court consent could jeopardise their licence in the long term.”

The licensing lawyer continued: “The process and timing of re-opening has been particularly difficult on the trade with little information forthcoming and businesses have had to adapt quickly to what the latest guidelines mean. I would urge all statutory authorities to work closely with and support the trade to ensure they can open in line with regulations. This will help to protect licence renewals which are due in 2022 and also support the long-term vibrancy of an industry that is crucial to the Northern Ireland economy.”