The Stormont Executive has insisted there has been “no change” around rules for outdoor hospitality venues on the eve of post-lockdown reopening.
But Hospitality Ulster said there was “chaos” over the implementation of the rules and many venues had been told their outdoor seating areas did not adhere to guidelines from the Executive.
Outdoor hospitality, non-essential retail, gyms and swimming pools are set to reopen across Northern Ireland on Friday.
But a number of bars say they will not be able to reopen after being told their outdoor areas do not conform to requirements. Many bar owners say their outdoor areas, now judged to be too enclosed, have not changed from what was permitted to open following the easing of the first lockdown last year.
Outdoor premises should not be more than 50% enclosed, according to health guidance.
The Executive Office issued a statement on Thursday evening insisting there had been “no change to the definition of indoor and outdoor areas which applied last year”.
Local councils are inspecting hospitality premises in their respective areas.
In a statement, Belfast City Council said it had a “statutory obligation to ensure compliance within the coronavirus restrictions, set by the NI Executive”.
We want people to be able to open tomorrow, we want hospitality for the outdoors to be back, we want retail to be back and there is no desire to put any additional obstacles in anyone’s wayFinance Minister Conor Murphy
Finance Minister Conor Murphy said the issue was discussed at a meeting of the Executive on Thursday.
“We’ve asked that people in the Executive’s taskforce, the First and Deputy First Minister’s Office to engage with Belfast City Council and to make sure that people do understand,” he said.
“We want people to be able to open tomorrow, we want hospitality for the outdoors to be back, we want retail to be back and there is no desire to put any additional obstacles in anyone’s way.”
Conall Wolsey, director of the Beannchor Group, said that of 12 premises, only two could open on Friday within the guidelines.
The Sunflower Bar in Belfast is another business affected.
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 regulationsBelfast City Council
Owner Pedro Donald said its outdoor area had the same set-up as last year, when it was permitted to open.
He told the PA news agency that he spent thousands of pounds ordering in stock for the reopening date which was announced two weeks ago, but that was thrown into uncertainty on Wednesday when council staff told him the outdoor area did not comply with requirements.
“We had been told it would be the same rules as last summer when we were allowed to reopen outdoors only. We haven’t changed anything so we thought ‘Great, let’s go’,” he said.
“We got the staff geed up, we got the stock in, got everything turned on again and then, at the last minute, they came out and inspected it and said we don’t comply, which just doesn’t make sense.
“They told us we don’t comply because we have four walls, but we had four walls last summer and we did comply then, so something has changed.
“If I want to open on Friday, I have to take down awnings, parasols – there can be no cover at all, and obviously we can’t do that, you can’t ask people to sit in the rain and eat a soggy pizza with rain splattering into your coffee or your pint. It’s just nonsense.”
I created spaces in my back garden with Covid rules ... but I was told I cannot use this space because it must be 50% in the air, and mine ... is not 50% in the air. I'm crying, I cannot believe this could happenMonika Rawson, Smokey Deli
Monika Rawson, owner of the Smokey Deli in east Belfast, broke down in tears on Thursday after being told that her outdoor area did not meet with requirements.
She said she had spent £4,000 preparing the area for reopening.
“I created spaces in my back garden with Covid rules … but I was told I cannot use this space because it must be 50% in the air, and mine, because of the fences around it and the roof, is not 50% in the air,” she told BBC Radio Ulster.
“I’m crying, I cannot believe this could happen because I got grant money from government to improve my garden. I was so pleased and proud, I was so excited waiting for people to come and see my garden and enjoy it, and now they cannot.
“I’m just gutted, I can’t stop crying.”
In a statement, Belfast City Council said: “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,” he said.
“We will continue to work with business owners to try to address any concerns and give them the assistance they need.”