PUBLIC space including roads, green areas and even multi-storey car parks could help the north’s hospitality industry reopen within social distancing guidelines.
Hospitality Ulster has called on councils and the Department for Infrastructure to back the industry by coming up with innovative solutions to allow businesses to safely plan for reopening.
Hospitality are listed in the final part of Stormont's five-stage pathway to easing restrictions. While no dates are attached to the plan, it has been suggested that it could be towards the end of August.
The drinks body’s chief executive Colin Neill said: “Up until now we have been preserving jobs, this is now about saving them, because the Government will not fund this forever.
“The next approach is how do we come back? We don’t have the best weather, but can we open up public space, roads and indeed multi-storey car parks? In each situation, we will have to look at the physical locality.”
The minister also said plans were underway to pedestrianise areas in towns and cities elsewhere in the north.
Dublin City Council has already revealed its plans to pedestrianise a significant number of streets after 11am each day. It’s expected to be rolled out over the next three to six months, with measures likely to remain for at least 12 to 18 months. In some cases, it will become permanent.
Manager of the Derry City Centre Initiative, Jim Roddy, suggested this week that the city’s Guildhall Square could be used by restaurants when restrictions are eased. He said other pedestrianised zones were being considered.
Colin Neill said Belfast as well as towns and cities across the north can learn from solutions in other European cities, where bars and restaurants share space.
He’s also backing moves to pedestrianise streets. He said one option could see half a road or street closed and handed over to cafés with one-way and speed controls in place for traffic.
He said licensing legislation will need to be flexible to allow it to work.
“Everybody is going to have to be inventive. There’s no point our industry being innovative if we’re blocked by space or indeed legislation.
“It won’t work everywhere, but it has to be part of the solution.”
Gerry Carlile, who owns the Pizza on the Square restaurant on Donegall Square West next to Belfast City Hall, believes the current use of the street as zone for buses is a waste.
He pointed to the examples of Buchanan Street in Glasgow and Concert Square in Liverpool, where shared public seating works all year round.
He said areas of Belfast, including Ann Street, Blackstaff Square and the Cathedral Quarter could be better utilised.
While he backs the approach taken by Stormont in not setting out dates, he said government can help the industry innovate.
“It’s going to take a bit of innovation and it’s going to take big thinking from council and the Department for Infrastructure.
“I think that’s a serious opportunity for Belfast as a city, not just in the short-term, but in the longer term.”