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Reopen soon or we will lose half of our restaurants, says prominent Northern Ireland chef Michael Deane

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Michael Deane says the prospects for Belfast are worse than the 1970s

Michael Deane says the prospects for Belfast are worse than the 1970s

Photopress Belfast

Michael Deane says the prospects for Belfast are worse than the 1970s

Restaurants should be allowed to open as early as next month or face as many as half going under, one of Northern Ireland's top chefs has said.

Michael Deane said the government needs to speak to the industry to formulate a safe plan to restart.

He said he is confident restaurateurs will be able to open their doors and serve customers, using social distancing measures.

"There should now be consultation as to how we move forward… we'll be ready to go within a few weeks as long as it's safe. We are just going to have to cope with this until there is some sort of vaccine," he said.

"I would say Belfast, if it doesn't reopen by June, we will see about 50% drop off (in restaurants).

"We have a good background, we've been around for 25 years, we have been through bigger storms than this.

"We are OK for a while - at the end of the day you can't keep us locked down forever and we don't want to see the industry die.

"The economy can not just fall into free-fall.

"Belfast is going to be a lot worse than it was in the '70s."

Speaking on the Ulster Business Podcast, Mr Deane, who owns a collection of restaurants in Belfast including the Michelin-starred Eipic, said the industry is "on its knees" amid the coronavirus pandemic.

And while he believes restaurants such as his could open with reduced customer numbers, he said government must consult and communicate with the industry directly to ensure a plan is now established.

It comes as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced a phased reopening of the Republic, which includes the relaunch of restaurants and cafes by the end of June, with pubs to follow in August.

"Restaurants, bars, cafe and clubs - they are all different.

"I think in a controlled environment, and that's not being reckless, we are all responsible people, I think we could get open if it's at 40% or 30% volume - whatever the guidelines are.

"Of course we have to listen to the experts… I really think that Ireland should have been locked down as an island and I think we should be able to start business within the next month or so."

Belfast Telegraph food critic Joris Minne said: "The hit that they (hospitality) have taken on this is just extraordinary.

"And being able to find the motivation to do what Michael is doing, and others, transforming their restaurants to takeaway ... that is not an easy thing to do.

"I think there are around 60,000 people in the sector across Northern Ireland.

"People like (First Minister) Arlene Forster, who is a former Economy Minister, knows better than most just how important it is and how closely linked it is to the tourism offer.

"People like Michael Deane and experts would surely be able to figure out how that (reopening) might happen.

"There has to be some sort of practical document that says 'here is how a restaurant can work, here is how a pub can work'."

Mr Deane said "it's going to take us a while to get going".

He added: "A lot of people in the hospitality business have been very nervous and very downbeat about 'how can we operate at 30% occupancy?'

"No one is saying that at the moment.

"If we can get back in, take temperature controls of customers, staff, and go through a proper means of service, I really believe we should start to talk about it with somebody."

He said that he has 90 covers in his Meat Locker restaurant.

"I think we can do three services of 30," he said.

"A lot of people are very scared to go out of the house, never mind pick up a delivery.

"The picture is not good.

"Looking forward, I think we have remedies and answers, but we want to keep the health of a nation, which is a great nation in Northern Ireland, which I think is doing a lot better than other parts of the UK.

"Someone needs to consult with and talk to us to see if we are in the right direction with their ideas, pushing forward.

"The rest of Europe is starting to push the buttons again and people are confident that they will remain safe."

Belfast Telegraph