The group representing the hospitality industry in Northern Ireland has said council inspections of outdoor hospitality premises have left the industry in “chaos”.
It comes less than 24 hours before some hospitality venues reopen across Northern Ireland as part of the latest easing of lockdown restrictions.
However, many bars have now been told they cannot reopen as their outdoor seating areas do not comply with the regulations set by the Executive.
The confusion among establishments has led to bars across Northern Ireland having to alter reopening plans at the last minute.
White’s Tavern - Belfast’s oldest pub – wrote that new regulations had been “sprung on them” and that they have been told their outdoor garden won’t be allowed to reopen.
In a post online they added: “Don’t worry, we will open, and we plan to do our best with what we have as we have no intention of letting our loyal customers down after being so excited all week.”
Pedro Donald, who owns the Sunflower bar on Union Street in Belfast city centre, said a Belfast City Council team inspected his premises on Thursday ahead of the commencement of outdoor hospitality.
Mr Donald was informed by the council officials that his outside bar facilities did not currently comply with the anti-smoking legislation.
While he has received “phenomenal” support from customers, politicians, industry colleagues and suppliers, Mr Donald now faces having to postpone his planned reopening until May 24 when indoor dining and hotels are due to resume trading.
“People are trying to help and while I’m grateful for that, it doesn’t change anything,” he said.
“We have everything in place and were ready to go in the morning. It’s a real kick in the teeth because it has been a long winter and we were so looking forward to seeing everyone again.”
Elsewhere in the city, Mourne Seafood Bar was also told it would be unable to reopen as planned tomorrow unless it removed the cover or the sides of its outside area.
Management said it had spent £25,000 on the outdoor set up and that the same one was used last summer.
Colin Neill, chief of Hospitality Ulster, described the situation as “chaos” and said the issue of councils interpreting the regulations more strictly was “across the province”.
“[The regulations] are now being enforced right down to the full stop. It is an absolute shift in the letter of enforcement,” he told BBC’s Evening Extra on Thursday.
“We had the same inspections last year and none of the authorities drew it up or we would have addressed it. We didn’t know until the 19 April what rules we would be opening under.
“Engagement would have solved all of this. We have taken what should have been a positive first step to return the hospitality industry...this has soured everyone. It is a slap in the face to the industry again.”
In a statement Belfast City Council said: “While we very much welcome the easing of restrictions which will allow licensed and unlicensed premises to reopen, council has a statutory obligation to ensure compliance within the Coronavirus Restrictions, set by the NI Executive.
“We recognise that the regulations are complex and appreciate that businesses will need support and guidance on how they can operate safely, in a way which meets the requirements of the regulations.
“We will continue to work with business owners to try to address any concerns and give them the assistance they need.”
Belfast-based People Before Profit councillor Matt Collins believes the hospitality industry have been treated “disgracefully” by the Executive.
He said: “They have had mixed messages, no messages and now 48 hours out from when they’ve been told they can open, some have been told they can’t.
“The industry has been put in a very difficult situation. We are in a period when small business owners have invested a great deal of time and money to refurbish their venues and get them ready for these opening dates and to then have this plan overturned in this way by Stormont is just disgraceful.
“Workers in small businesses have continually been thrown under the bus by the Executive and it’s just not good enough,” Councillor Collins added.
In a statement on Thursday evening, the Executive Office issued a statement advising there has been “no change” to the definition of infoor and outdoor areas, the same rules that applied last year.
“The definition of ‘enclosed’ and ‘substantially enclosed’ comes from the smoke-free legislation from 2007 and is directly referenced in the regulations,” they said.
"This was the same definition that was in place last July. The position remains that the general rule of thumb is that outdoor premises should not be more than 50% enclosed.
“The definition from the smoke-free legislation was used on the basis that it was a good comparator in terms of the aim to ensure adequate ventilation and was well understood by the hospitality sector and by district councils. The same definition is also used in England, Scotland and Wales.
“Covid-19 is still circulating in the community and tomorrow’s relaxation has a focus on the outdoors, as we seek to move forward in small steps.
“Officials in the relevant departments have engaged extensively with different sectors in advance of tomorrow’s relaxations and further engagement is planned to explain the position and try to ensure consistency of approach and for councils to work with businesses to allow them to operate in line with the regulations.”