Publicans across Northern Ireland are putting precautions in place before bars and restaurants reopen next Friday. Ralph Hewitt hears their stories.
Pubs, restaurants and hotels across Northern Ireland are hurriedly preparing for Friday's much-anticipated reopening. But customers will have to brace themselves for a very different type of atmosphere.
With strict table service in place and reservations a must, gone are the days of propping up the bar. It is not yet known if sport can even be shown in pubs.
However, the reduction of the social distancing rule to one metre, announced by the Executive on Thursday, was greatly welcomed across the industry.
The hospitality sector has been one of the hardest hit since lockdown began in March, as many people trapped inside their homes have craved a night out with friends and loved ones for a cooked meal, or a simple pint.
The Executive had said earlier this month that hotels and restaurants could reopen from this Friday, while bars will have to offer substantial meals with table service.
Not every publican has been lucky enough to fall into that category, but those who have are pulling out all the stops to make their buildings as safe as possible for customers.
The Belfast Telegraph visited six establishments this week to find out what work is under way - and while not everyone was happy with the guidelines, they were confident of providing a welcoming and, most importantly, safe service.
Bittles Bar, Belfast
The owner of Bittles Bar, John Bittles, has used lockdown to repaint and decorate his pub, as well as carry out a deep clean of the building.
Bittles' outside seating area has allowed the pub to reopen on a table-service basis and only one patron at a time can enter the building to use the toilets.
John has refused to install a Perspex screen at his bar, as he is against serving anyone behind such a barrier.
"We have 1,200 bottles of mostly whiskey and they have been cleaned," he explains. "We have done everything physically possible to have the place as fresh and as clean as we can make it.
"All our glasses have been replaced and washed.
"We will have a one-way system and there'll be only one person in the toilet at a time. Our bar is small, so we need to be careful."
And he adds: "There will be hand sanitiser, gloves and face masks, if people need them.
"It's about trying to make the staff and the customers feel as comfortable as possible."
Admitting that he was "a bit apprehensive" ahead of Friday's reopening, John fears huge crowds could descend on the city centre, but hopes customers can be patient as everyone acclimatises to the new normality.
"To get the place painted and decorated was a costly job, but I wouldn't have done that if we weren't closed.
"My partner and I have done all this between us.
"I don't know how many hours we have spent getting the place ready to a good standard," he says.
Lurgan Golf Club
Muriel Gamble, the manager of Lurgan Golf Club, has been busy organising hand-sanitising stations, seating plans, risk assessments and Perspex screens in the clubhouse of the Co Armagh complex.
Personal protective equipment and training have been a must for staff to ensure their own safety and that of customers.
"Everywhere is different," says Muriel. "A club is for members and members' guests. You'll have to have everyone signed in, but it is a bit different, because we're ruled by the Registration of Clubs Act as opposed to the drinks license. You have to think where that fits into the picture. Are we being guided by one, or the other, or both?
"This one governing paper has been released and it is a one-size-fits-all. A bit of common sense comes into it, too, but it's really safety first."
Lurgan Golf Club has already been welcoming golfers back to its pristine fairways in recent weeks, but it is now all hands on deck to get them back into the club's bar and restaurant.
"It will be nice to see everybody again and I think our members can't wait to get back in here," adds Muriel. "There's so many of them crying out for a pint after their golf. They might be thinking that, if the golf's not good, well at least there's a pint at the end of it."
Pretty Mary's, Moira
Sitting in the centre of the Co Down village of Moira, Pretty Mary's has also been getting its staff prepared for D-Day next Friday.
General manager Joe Webb has spent most of his time in the bar during lockdown to keep the building in order.
Looking ahead to reopening, Joe is hoping the public will take to the new guidelines. "I'm certainly looking forward to the place being open again and I'm looking forward to the fact that people will respect that a lot of things in place aren't of our doing," says Joe. "It's legislation. There's a new normal now, which we have to adhere to."
Eating has been reduced drastically inside the pub to adhere to social distancing guidelines, while the necessary risk assessments have proven invaluable.
Hand sanitiser has also been a big expense for Pretty Mary's, on top of the usual bills.
"I've been buying plants and I've painted," Joe adds. "You do everything you can, but the biggest expense, probably, is trying to do the takeaway service on a Sunday, so you could show everyone that you were still here.
"Hand sanitisers and getting them put on the wall has been a massive expense.
"The money's still going out, but we're not making any money."
Downshire Arms Hotel, Banbridge
In Co Down, the Heslip family were all hands to the pump as building work continued both inside and outside the Downshire Arms Hotel in Banbridge.
Owners Nigel, Karen and James Heslip are widening their doorways to avoid choke-points in the building, extending the beer garden into the hotel’s yard and installing Perspex screens for the safety of their customers.
“In regards to social distancing, we had a look at how people are going to come into the building,” Karen explains. “We will have someone doing a meet-and-greet at the front of the hotel.
“We will direct them to wherever they need to go, be it the bar, outside, or the restaurant.
“In the restaurant, we have tablecloths, but that wasn’t going to be effective in the new climate, so we got clear vinyl coverings to provide a hygienic, sterile environment for customers.
“New signage has been ordered, too, but because turnover is going to be down, we had a look at how we were going to maintain a basic turnover to make the business continue successfully and one of the key areas was outside.”
The extension of the beer garden will allow patrons to have a drink, eat their meal, or sit outside for coffee after eating in the restaurant.
“We didn’t receive any grants, because our rates were too high,” adds Nigel. “Everything is coming out of our own pockets. We have done a lot of the work ourselves and the staff have been great about coming in.
“The customers, who really wanted to see us up and running again, have offered us support and we are really thankful.
“We’re looking forward to meeting everybody again,” he adds.
Oyo Parador Lodge, Belfast
Paul Blaney is taking no chances when it comes to the safety of his customers at the Oyo Parador Lodge in Belfast, with Perspex screens at the bar and in between seating areas.
Touchless hand sanitisers have also been introduced in the pub, with a one-way system operating in the toilets.
“Irrespective of whether social distancing was going to be two metres, or one metre, I have gone ahead and put up screens between the tables, which negates the need for one or two metres while sitting down,” says Paul. “The reason I did that is because I want people to feel safe; I want customers to come back to my business, because there will be no business if they don’t feel safe.”
Adding that it was “difficult” to get the bar ready for Friday, Paul was grateful he could benefit from the £25,000 support grant available to businesses during the pandemic.
“I’m looking forward to seeing all of our regulars back and I hope they feel safe to do so,” Paul adds. “We have done all we can do to bring in some sort of new normal. There is no going back to the way it was until they find a vaccine.
“People need to follow the rules and it’s up to staff to help them do that.”
The Cellar Bar, Lurgan
Patrons in this Co Armagh pub will be left in no doubt how to enter the premises safely.
The proprietor of the Cellar Bar, Lesa McCann, is already fully booked for next Saturday night and has done everything possible so her customers will feel safe when the doors finally reopen.
“I have a big board out the front and posters which people can read about social distancing, washing their hands and not entering if they haven’t booked,” explains Lesa.
“If they haven’t booked, they will go into our carry-out, which will have a Perspex screen, and a member of staff will see if a table is available before they can enter the premises.
“I’ll be putting a two-to two-and-a-half-hour time limit on my tables, because I think that’s a good amount of time for people to come in, have a drink, relax and enjoy.
She adds: “I’m lucky — I have the option of a beer garden out the back, so if somebody does finish their meal, there’s an option to move them to the beer garden.”
Just like the majority of establishments, Lesa has put hand-sanitising stations at all entry and exit points.
In the initial stages of reopening, she only plans to open three or four days a week.
“I’m going to keep it tight and controlled, because I want to make it as safe for customers as I can.
“I want to make sure that people are coming in to enjoy it and not be stressed.
“Our phone hasn’t stopped — everyone just can’t wait to get back out again.”