Forced closures, tricky regulations and mounting debt: How Belfast bars have been coping since reopening after months of closure

Industry research has revealed that four in five bars believe they will not return to profit until next year under the current COVID-19 restrictions.

Hospitality Ulster welcomed the decision by the Executive to resurrect indoor hospitality – subject to ratification on May 20 – on May 24 and to change the six people from two households rule in bars and restaurants to six from any household, but is now urging them to review the 2m/1m+ social distancing rules in light of the new research.

Its chief executive Colin Neill said: “The new rule of six (max per table – six people from six separate households or two households if more) and ten persons on wedding tables, and the return of gala dinners and business meetings is very welcome as it will help businesses operate at a viable level and protect jobs.

However, until all social distancing rules are removed, the majority of hospitality businesses will be unable to return to profitability for some considerable time.”

The reopening of outdoor restaurants and bars on April 30 was a very critical moment for the sector, which has suffered enormously over the last year from hardly being open, but according to the study 46 percent of operators are pessimistic in terms of confidence about the market.

“This year has been a write off as a dead loss,” said Richard Keenan, manager of The Hatfield House on the Ormeau Road, “and it will be a year before we get back what we lost.”

The bar was able to conduct a pint delivery service called “The Pint Man” during the first lockdown, which delivered prepaid pints to customer’s doors from a van fitted with Guinness taps, but found the second lockdown to be “tougher”.

“We still had gas and electricity bills to pay even when we were shut. Those costs don’t go away. You have to turn the heating on during the winter months or else your pipes will freeze,” he said.

“We have had so many of our machines break on us as well. These things are not meant to be shut off for six months at a time.”

Speaking to the manager of The Jailhouse on Joys Entry as well, Sara Flynn said that whilst things have been busy in the front, the economic recovery of the business has been slow with turnover being down by 70 percent and not expected to rise to normal levels again for another six months.

The research conducted by the market measurement, data, and research consultancy CGA in conjunction with Hospitality Ulster comes after countless bars and restaurants were told they could not open last month because their outdoor areas did not comply with the new regulations on outdoor hospitality.

These regulations, which require businesses to make their outdoor premises 50 percent open to the elements, are the same as the regulations for outdoor smoking laws which fall under the Smoke-free (Premises, Vehicle Operators and Penalty Notices) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007.

The news rocked the hospitality sector, with many complaining that the new regulations were not issued to them soon enough after already investing thousands on outdoor equipment, such as pods and marquee areas, earlier this year in preparation for the reopening.

Keenan was told he had to remove the covering over some of the seating in his new extension, Pneumatic Park, which costed him thousands of pounds to install.

“Outdoor areas have been a major investment throughout the sector as a whole because we all knew the first stage of coming back would be outdoor. It was a bit disappointing then pouring all this money into something and being told to remove it,” he said.

Reflecting on how the Executive has handled the reopening of the hospitality sector though, Keenan said: “We are all frustrated but at the same time we all have family. I have pensioner parents. I want them to be safe. We all have to follow the rules.”

On the contrary, Flynn said that the regulations have only added an “additional challenge” to the already beaten down sector.

The bar had to close its doors on bank holiday Monday – just three days after reopening – because it was unable to shield its customers from the bad weather.

Despite the difficulties, the bar has done its best, she said, to adapt to the restrictions and cooperate with the local council in the “hope that the measures will be temporary”.

With only 10 to 15 percent of hospitality businesses having access to outdoor space and a significant number of those that do not being able to open because of the new regulations, those that are open are also beginning to feel the pressure.

After seven months of being closed, owner of Laverys on Bradbury Place, Bernard Lavery, was over the moon to be back but said that managing people’s expectations under the current regulations has been tough.

“Even though we have more space than most combined,” said Lavery, “we just cannot accommodate everyone. There are simply not enough places open.”

“We’re operating at a third of our capacity at the moment. People get tired and fed up standing in long queues. The streets are full of people with nowhere to go – it’s awful,” he said.

“Our biggest obstacle at the moment is managing people’s expectations because people expect to get in but when they see several hundred people piled up the street and two bouncers in the middle of it trying to control it, they will be disappointed.”

Northern Ireland’s roadmap out of lockdown is moving at a slower pace than the rest of the UK, with only an indicative date currently in place which will allow licensed premises to serve customers inside from May 24, if given the green light by the Executive, but there is hope for businesses yet.

The Executive have launched a new support service called Workforce Testing which offers rapid testing kits using Lateral Flow Devices to businesses across Northern Ireland.

The rapid testing has been specifically developed to identify those who may be carrying the virus but not showing any symptoms, and by testing regularly, this can be identified and resolved at an early stage before the virus unknowingly spreads about the workplace.

It is believed that the service could help bars prevent the spread of the virus amongst their workplaces when they reopen indoors.

Alastair Hamilton CBE, the Workforce Testing Programme’s advisor, said: “To date, over 400 businesses in NI have already contacted [the] Department of Health to register an interest in the programme. This is a good start, but we need to deploy the range of testing measures as widely and as regularly as possible.”