The Irish government is facing an onslaught of legal challenges to their ban on indoor restaurant dining, citing hotels' ability to serve their guests meals as an unfair treatment for restaurants.
At the moment pubs and restaurants in Ireland are open only for outdoor dining with no clear plan for reopening inside laid out by the government. However, hotels and guesthouses can serve their guests meals, which has led some restaurateurs to take their case to the courts.
The country’s largest restaurant group, the Restaurant Association of Ireland, while unable to take their own challenge, has said that it will support those who do.
“A number of businesses have come to us to say that they are being economically discriminated against by the announcement that hotels will be able to open for indoor dining from June 2nd while they won’t,” said chief executive Adrian Cummins.
“Restaurants don’t even have a date when reopening will be allowed or any metrics to work with. We will support any legal challenge a business takes, we will back it and we have our legal team working on it.”
While some restaurants are feeling the need to reopen after what has been Europe’s longest lockdown, other restaurants would not be able to open, even if allowed. Michelin star chef and founder of Food On The Edge, JP McMahon spoke to Fine Dining Lovers: “We’re not ready to open. We have to open three restaurants, we have to get about forty staff back, so to be honest, I’m just going to stick to our time. If the government announced that we could open tomorrow it would actually be a nightmare."
Irish Chef JP McMahon
“I would just like a six to eight-week plan from the government. Even if we got an indication that we could open in June, I don’t think we’d be ready. We’d have to gradually bring staff back in and train them. There’s a shortage of staff anyway and with people on the PUP (Pandemic Unemployment Payments), it’s very hard to get them off those payments, because ‘are we opening? Are we not opening?'"
It points also to a looming staffing crisis for restaurants this summer, if and when they do open. Ireland is not alone in this and we’ve seen staff shortages across the board, from world-leading three-Michelin-star restaurants, to your local mom and pop eatery, getting people off government payments and into full-time employment may severely slow down an economic recovery for the sector.
“You can understand because that’s their only source of income at the moment and if they’re getting €350 a week or whatever, they’re not going to give that up for two days work a week,” says McMahon. “They have rent to pay etc. So we have to know that we can pay them for five days a week when they do come back."
Thankfully demand is high, and as elsewhere people are keen to return to their favourite restaurants after such a long time in lockdown. Unfortunately in Ireland, outdoor dining can’t be considered a reliable method to meet that demand because of that great leveller – Irish weather.
“The demand is phenomenal. We have space for eight people to eat outside and people are ringing up asking if they can book and I say ‘well, I don’t know what the weather is going to be like’. The wind in Ireland is crazy and even if it’s not raining, what about the wind? Then you need heating. Outdoor dining in Ireland is only ever going to be a supplement. We are not the Continent."
It’s a difficult situation for restaurateurs. However, the government seems to be taking a cautious approach after what happened in the country over Christmas, when opening up bars and restaurants saw a huge spike in cases, briefly placing Ireland at the top of the Covid infections list for Europe.
“We opened for three weeks and we ended up having to close Tartar early because our manager got Covid,” says McMahon. “Every single one of our staff was a close contact, and thankfully they all came back clear but we had to close at 2pm in the middle of service.
“It’s hard to know what the right thing is to do. Some restaurants will decide they need to open as soon as possible or they need to sue. I think every restaurant needs to decide for themselves what the right course of action is.”