Frustration at venues unable to open due to set-up of outdoor areas
Hospitality bosses have expressed frustration after a number of venues with outdoor areas were told they do not conform to coronavirus rules.
Outdoor hospitality, non-essential retail, gyms and swimming pools are set to reopen tomorrow.
But a number of bars say they will not be able to reopen after their outdoor areas were deemed to have too many walls.
Pedro Donald, owner of the Sunflower Bar in Belfast, said its outdoor area has the same set-up as last year, when it was permitted to open.
He told the PA news agency he spent thousands of pounds ordering in stock for the reopening date which was announced two weeks ago, but that was thrown into uncertainty on Wednesday when council staff told him the outdoor area does not comply with requirements.
“We had been told it would be the same rules as last summer when we were allowed to reopen outdoors only. We haven’t changed anything so we thought ‘Great, let’s go’,” he said.
“We got the staff geed up, we got the stock in, got everything turned on again and then, at the last minute, they came out and inspected it and said we don’t comply, which just doesn’t make sense.
“They told us we don’t comply because we have four walls – but we had four walls last summer and we did comply then, so something has changed.
“If I want to open on Friday, I have to take down awnings, parasols – there can be no cover at all, and obviously we can’t do that, you can’t ask people to sit in the rain and eat a soggy pizza with rain splattering into your coffee or your pint. It’s just nonsense.”
The Mourne Seafood Bar in Belfast is also among businesses which have been told to adapt their outdoor provision to reopen on Friday.
Monika Rawson, owner of the Smokey Deli in east Belfast, broke down in tears today after being told that her outdoor area did not meet requirements.
She said she had spent £4,000 preparing the area for reopening.
“I created spaces in my back garden with Covid rules… but I was told I cannot use this space because it must be 50% in the air, and mine, because of the fences around it and the roof, is not 50% in the air,” she told BBC Radio Ulster.
“I’m crying, I cannot believe this could happen because I got grant money from government to improve my garden. I was so pleased and proud, I was so excited waiting for people to come and see my garden and enjoy it, and now they cannot.
“I’m just gutted, I can’t stop crying.”
The matter is understood to have been discussed at a meeting of the Stormont Executive today.
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said she had written to Health Minister Robin Swann about the matter and spoken to the head of the Covid Task Force, asking them to “address this matter urgently”.
She also said she planned to raise it at the Executive meeting, urging a resolution.
Last night, Mr Swann said he was “hugely disappointed” by the “confusion about outdoor spaces”.
“Recognising what colleagues in that sector have been through, I ensured that – in our regulations – there was no change to the position from that which applied last year.
“This was to ensure that, as we moved into a controlled and phased reopening, there would be clarity and certainty as regards that position,” he said.
“I would make a plea to colleagues in local government, supported by the Executive Office as necessary, to move quickly to engage with the sector, explain the position and find solutions – by reference to material that has been available since last year, and which is consistent with other parts of the UK.”
A Belfast City Council spokesman said the council has a “statutory obligation to ensure compliance within the coronavirus restrictions, set by the NI Executive”.
“We recognise that the regulations are complex and appreciate that businesses will need support and guidance on how they can operate safely, in a way which meets the requirements of the regulations,” he said.
“We will continue to work with business owners to try to address any concerns and give them the assistance they need.”