There was relief for Northern Ireland’s hospitality sector on Friday morning as hotels and eateries reopened their doors for the first time since lockdown.
Beer taps were flowing and cash registers ringing as customers returned to cafes, restaurants and pubs across the region.
Economy minister Diane Dodds hailed the reopening of the sector as a hugely positive step forward as she visited a number of establishments.
Today sees another step in opening up our economy with the re-opening of hotels, restaurants and bars across Northern Ireland— Economy NI (@Economy_NI) July 3, 2020
Businesses in this sector employ around 65,000 people and generate around Â£1billion in revenue each year.
See https://t.co/URxg4I81Hr for more info pic.twitter.com/i08ZM1BdEU
At the Morning Star Bar and Restaurant in Belfast, regulars were waiting at the doors to catch up with friends as well as enjoy their favourite tipple.
Manager James McAlister said it had been fantastic to see all the familiar faces back in the bar.
“It’s slightly different in terms of the new procedures but everyone is abiding by the rules – they just want to see their mates and have a pint,” he told the PA news agency.
He described lockdown as having been tough for the business, and described the year as a “write off” with no tourists in the city.
“It’s not something you ever budget for or envisage happening. We set up an online shop, doing deliveries and an off licence so we were lucky to be able to keep some people off furlough.
“Pulling out seats yesterday we have probably lost about 30% between the bar and restaurant to ensure one metre distancing.
“We have had a couple of people who don’t want to order food, or want to sit at their usual seat or at the bar, and have just gone out. But that’s the rules at the moment, hopefully they change but we just have to abide by them.”
Mr McAlister said he arrived to open the doors at 11.30am to see a group of his regulars waiting, describing it as “nice to see”.
We can't sit together, but at least we are in the same place.High Morrow
Regular Hugh Morrow was among those waiting, and said lockdown had been a long wait.
“I would come here five times a week and know everyone here, it’s nice to be with my friends again,” he said.
“We can’t sit together, but at least we are in the same place.
“We talked on the phone over lockdown and arranged that on Friday we would all meet here, there was around 12 of us outside, I said to James (the manager), it’s like when the shepherd opens the door and all the sheep come back in again.”
At the Grand Central Hotel, customers were also returning.
General manager Stephen Meldrum said the hotel had remained functioning through lockdown for key workers.
“It’s been extremely difficult, from a hotelier’s point of view, from Easter time onwards would traditionally be our busiest time of the year so we’ve lost quite a lot of business particularly from the international market,” he said.
“We’re playing catch up at this moment in time.”
Mr Meldrum said that since reopening dates were announced there had been a great deal of interest from across Ireland, with a number of bookings for this weekend.
“We are a 300-bedroom hotel but based on our social distancing guidelines we are running on a reduced capacity of around 90 bedrooms,” he said.
“We have done a lot of subtle touches behind the scenes like upping cleaning schedules, subtle signage and extra sanitation points – but it’s important we still deliver a hospitality experience, not a hospital experience.”
Meanwhile, some businesses chose to stick with takeaway services.
Mark Ashbridge, owner of Established Coffee in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, described the last three months as the hardest he can remember for the business, but said amid uncertainty around coronavirus they want to wait to fully reopen.
“We just feel there is a lot of uncertainty, it’s a strange atmosphere to bring staff back into and to try and plan for so we feel that the system we have got set up for takeaway works really well,” he said.
“When it comes to reopening the sit in part, we’re going to take our time, take baby steps and add it when we feel comfortable to do so.
“What we pride ourselves on is providing a good atmosphere and a good experience, part of that is pulling people together. Whilst you have to keep a bit of distance kind of hampers what we do. If we’re going to reopen sit in, we want to have an element of that come back and not people looking over their shoulder.”