The coronavirus dealt another major blow to the struggling Northern Ireland economy last night with sportswear retailer O'Neills announcing up to 750 job losses on a temporary basis.
Only a few weeks after opening a flagship store in the centre of Belfast, the Strabane-based GAA kit manufacturer said it would be suspending operations from 6pm yesterday evening.
The lay-offs will be in effect until at least May 5.
The company said a small number of staff will be retained on a temporary basis to service existing customer requirements.
Kieran Kennedy, O'Neills' managing director, said the company had made the decision due to the postponement and cancellation of sporting fixtures and the "complete cessation" of orders from clubs and retailers.
He added that the company had no other alternative to safeguard its long-term future.
"As of yet, we still have no clarity from the Department of Economy in relation to support for our employees. We are doing our utmost to get this clarified and will advise our workforce as soon as we have any further information," he said.
"We'd like to make categorically clear this is not a closure, it is a pause based on circumstances beyond our control. We fully intend to be back in action stronger than ever as soon as possible.
"We are very aware of the strain this places on many of our loyal and dedicated staff and we wish once again to convey our sincerest apologies to each and every employee affected. This closure is unprecedented in our 102-year history and this decision has not been made lightly."
West Tyrone MLA Daniel McCrossan said it was a devastating blow to employees and their families, and urged for measures to support them.
"This is awful news right across the North, but most acutely in Strabane, where we already struggle with high levels of social deprivation," he said. "I know the leadership team of O'Neills, who have built this great company and provided significant employment for the people of Strabane and beyond, will have found this decision hugely difficult. It is clear they had no their option. We must support our employers and look after their employees to help them through this unprecedented time."
Sinn Fein MLA Maoliosa McHugh said the closure will hit families hard. "My first thoughts are with the workers faced with losing their jobs and their families at this time of great uncertainty," she said.
"This has been a major employer for many years and its loss will have a huge impact on the local economy in Strabane and across the wider north west."
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's leading chicken producer is advertising for hundreds of temporary workers to help meet the surge in retail demand.
Moy Park is looking for people across a range of roles in agriculture and production operations, with many of the opportunities particularly suitable for anyone with transferable skills who had been working in the hospitality industry.
"There has been a notable increase in grocery sales as people practice social distancing and self-isolate," said Moy Park's HR and performance director Kirsty Wilkins. "This has resulted in a heightened demand for chicken produce. This increase in grocery retail sales comes at a time when there has been a fall in demand across our sister sectors in hospitality and tourism as people's socialising and travel plans are curtailed.
"We hope the pressure being faced across these industries is short-term and, in the meantime, we are keen to help anyone looking for a job through these opportunities."