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Coronavirus: Belfast pub owner demands 'concrete guidelines' to get up and running after lockdown eases

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Kelvin Collins at his Ben Madigan’s bar in north Belfast

Kelvin Collins at his Ben Madigan’s bar in north Belfast

Kelvin Collins at his Ben Madigan’s bar in north Belfast

Northern Ireland's bars need "definitive and concrete guidelines" from government now so they can prepare to open their doors, an industry stalwart has said.

And Kelvin Collins, owner and director of Ben Madigan's bar in north Belfast, is planning to expand his pub with a new upstairs area and beer garden in a bid to accommodate more customers, while maintaining social distancing.

His team also turned its attention to providing almost 10,000 meals to the most vulnerable, after shutting up shop before St Patrick's Day as the coronavirus crisis took hold.

An industry expert, who formerly ran The Wolf and Whistle in Andersonstown and The Devenish Complex in Finaghy, Mr Collins says bars and restaurants will need three or four weeks to make changes and train staff before opening, so now is the time for a clear timeline from government.

He took over the former Cavehill Inn last year, before opening its doors as the new Ben Madigan's bar in November.

"Everyone is guessing and making assumptions and hoping they come true," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"(We need) guidelines... physically what do we put in place? We are getting little through.

"Ideally we need a three or four week lead time to get it in place - the physical alterations, training staff."

And as for distancing, he says reducing to one metre, as opposed to the current two metres, would "make businesses a lot more feasible", but only if it's safe to do so.

Mr Collins says many in the trade will still continue to struggle, especially those reliant on a big weekend economy, and that community bars could perform better.

He says his bar can adapt to the changes needed, with table service and food already a big part of the business.

He's also developing a new upstairs area, with plans for a beer garden, in a bid to retain his customer base, while maintaining social distancing.

"We have started work on that and are hoping to complete at the end of July," he said.

"We have an area that is licensed (outdoors) so we plan to get it up-and-running as well. But it's knowing how to make it safe, and it's weather dependent. If people are relying on an outside area, if it's the usual summer (poor weather) then it is a bit useless."

Mr Collins said draft guidance from industry group Hospitality Ulster has helped, but that government needs to step up to the plate and tell bars, restaurants and other hospitality businesses what to do.

"If it's something like table service, and no one stands at the bar, that's fine. But we need to be able to plan ahead," he said.

"We should be okay. Food was half our business, so we are used to taking table orders… it's been part of our culture."

And while he says his venue will be able to adjust, there must be "concrete guidance" to assist in planning for areas such as pinch points and changes to toilets.

Since shutting amid the crisis, he has turned his attention to a 'meals on wheels' service, delivering 135 meals each day, alongside assistance from the North Belfast Advice Partnership, as well as other volunteers.

Belfast Telegraph