Restaurants and pubs in Belfast and Londonderry are seeing a surge in business as visitors from the Republic travel north. But is it feeding a spike in Covid cases in Donegal? Kathy Donaghy reports
Diners and drinkers are flocking across the border to pubs and restaurants in Belfast and Derry, because of the different rules about socialising indoors.
Trains travelling from Dublin to Belfast are booked out and restaurants report a surge in booking, as revellers escape restrictions on eating and drinking indoors.
Publicans and restaurateurs in the north welcome the business, but there are also fears that it may be contributing to a spike in Covid-19 cases, particularly in Donegal.
In Belfast, the hospitality trade is enjoying a mini-boom as more and more visitors from Dublin travel for dinner and a few drinks.
According to Irish Rail, since the last weekend in May — which coincides with the opening up of indoor hospitality in the north — there’s been an increase of up to 40% in bookings for weekend services to Belfast.
A spokesman said that, along with Dublin-Galway, the Dublin-Belfast route is consistently seeing a high number of booked-out services.
“On each of the last three Fridays, for example, five out of the eight services from Dublin Connolly to Belfast have been fully booked out. We are operating with 50% capacity available for booking and customers are reminded that Enterprise and Intercity services must be booked in advance for travel.”
And, when they alight from trains, visitors are packing out the city’s restaurants and hostelries.
According to Peter McCloskey, owner of Oliver’s restaurant in the city, business is booming, with a massive increase in diners from Dublin.
McCloskey trebled the size of his restaurant, adding on a large outside area just before hospitality got the green light to re-open in the north.
He believes that, for years, people may have been put off travelling to Belfast in the height of the summer and it’s great to see people experiencing the city — many of them for the first time.
“This could be life-changing for us. It’s going to put us on the map and this is really positive,” he says, adding that he has every sympathy for restaurateurs in the Republic.
At sister restaurants Coppi and Buba, based in the city’s Cathedral Quarter, bookings from south of the border are up by 50%, according to co-owner Andrea O’Neill.
O’Neill, who owns the two restaurants with her husband, Tony, says there’s been a huge influx from Dubliners coming for weekends or nights out.
While they have reduced capacity in both establishments, the feedback from customers has been overwhelmingly positive, she says.
Since they reopened, O’Neill, says there has not been one case of Covid. They have been very strict on numbers, on hygiene and the feedback from customers is that they are dealing impeccably with everything.
“A lot of people haven’t been to Belfast before, which I was shocked at. They’re saying they really enjoyed the experience,” she says.
O’Neill says she feels really sorry for her counterparts across the border. “There’s no reason why restaurants there couldn’t operate in the same way. We are very safe. We haven’t had a single Covid-related incident.”
It’s early evening in Derry and strollers are taking advantage of the balmy evening to get out and about. Across the Peace Bridge, which spans the River Foyle, James Huey is preparing for a busy evening in his Walled City Brewery restaurant.
Based at Ebrington Square, an old military barracks overlooking the river, the city’s most up-and-coming quarter is popular with visitors and locals alike.
And on a warm summer evening those out and about are working up an appetite to stop for a bite at one of the area’s trendy restaurants.
When indoor dining and hospitality reopened in Derry at the end of May, Huey found that it was mostly locals making their way back to his restaurant. But he’s seen bookings from cross- border customers steadily rise (he can tell from the mobile numbers customers leave). “It doesn’t make me feel good, to be fair. In an ideal world, those people should be spending money in Donegal. I feel sorry for the Donegal restaurants,” he says.
According to the Restaurants Association of Ireland chief Adrian Cummins, if there had been an all-island approach to hospitality reopening, this would have mitigated against cross-border traffic.
He has no doubt that, if restrictions remain in place on indoor dining south of the border, people will continue to head north in their droves.
And differences in the rules around socialising on both sides of the border may be contributing to a spike in Covid-19 in the Donegal towns of Carndonagh and Buncrana. Experts fear that further easing of restrictions in the north could make things worse.
Two of the top three areas for Covid-19 rates in the country are near the Derry border.
A breakdown of coronavirus cases in each local electoral ward shows that the Buncrana area has the highest infection rate with a 14-day incidence rate of 608.1 per 100,000. In Carndonagh, just a 20-minute drive away, the rate is 489.3 per 100,000 — the third-highest rate in Ireland.
The rates in the two Inishowen towns are in keeping with rates across the border, where Derry has some of the north’s highest Covid-19 rates, with 298.8 cases per 100,000.
Pre-Covid figures show that on three Donegal-Derry border crossings alone there are nearly 327,000 traffic movements every single week.
“If the numbers go up in Derry, they’ll go up in Donegal,” says local doctor Martin Coyne. Dr Coyne is concerned that authorities in the north might follow Boris Johnson and change the regulations on face-masks from mandatory to advisory.
“Mask wearing is very effective. The transmissibility of the Delta variant is so much different,” he says.
Public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally has long championed an all-island approach on Covid-19.
Johnson’s line on making masks optional does little to help cross border co-operation, he believes.
“If we can’t co-operate and get things right on public health, when can we co-operate?” he asks.