Covid-19 has hit the earth like a proverbial asteroid. And much like the dinosaurs surely did, we are scrambling around trying to get our bearings. All sectors of Irish society have been hit and restaurant workers in particular are constantly waiting for another, inevitable blow. Since the conception of this article and the interview, Ireland has moved from level three to level five, but it is still important to see what working under those restrictions involved. I recently interviewed a young waiter from Tigh Neachtains in Co. Galway and he detailed his experiences of working during Covid-19. Please note, all comments were made pre-lockdown, but the sentiment remains the same.
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Cormac Whelan works in Tigh Neachtains, a widely popular traditional bar/restaurant on Galway’s Cross Street. He has worked there for a number of years and though there are ups & downs in every job, he has never faced a scenario like this before. He explained, “it’s strange working during a pandemic. It is completely new to everyone so there are no plans we can refer to. It is certainly a challenge when nobody knows what is going on day-to-day. Regulations and restrictions keep changing and updating.”
Tigh Neactains is a cosy building, in a prime location, that stocks everything from rare whiskeys and scotch, to craft and home-brewed beers. It regularly hosts traditional musicians and you could easily wile away the hours soaking in the atmosphere of this welcoming spot. Initially this popularity worried Cormac, as he felt at greater risk of exposure to the Coronavirus, but he found implementing the new rules to be an effective way of protecting himself, his colleagues and the customers.
“At the start, before the pubs began closing, I had never seen the pub as busy and was quite worried that I may be exposed. But since reopening we have taken so many precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. Every staff member sanitises regularly and there are hand-sanitising stations placed all around the restaurant.” As an asthma sufferer he noted the importance of wearing a mask, despite the inconvenience. He said, “at first wearing a mask was uncomfortable, but due to having asthma I couldn’t take the risk of catching it. The cleaning procedures at work make it far less stressful, knowing we are doing everything possible to prevent the spread of infection.”
He noted that customers found it difficult to assimilate at the beginning, stating, “it can be hard dealing with some customers who don’t want to follow guidelines, such as the nine euro meal with drinks or the time limits. Most customers have been lovely but there are always a few. When the levels change it can be hard to re-organise the seating plan and other arrangements within the pub. The levels changed and the new rules were grey and difficult to interpret at first. We wanted to make sure we implemented all the guidelines, but it could be mentally draining having to break down all the new rules to customers who had no wish to adhere to them.”
Cormac further explained that working within the new guidelines was a learning curve, for waiters and customers alike. “We were all learning as we went, but as time went on some people seemed to forget that there was a pandemic.” He found some customers would skip the queue or ignore time restrictions, however, he notes “after a reminder from the staff, everyone was always very understanding.” He finds there will always be people who simply won’t wear masks and follow the guidelines, but those who are willing to work together and obey the rules are in the vast majority.
He was hopeful when the initial lockdown ended and he could finally go back to work. “I was delighted,” he said, “but wary about the virus of course. Being off work for 4 months, I was excited to get back into a routine. Face masks were not mandatory when we first opened, but our manager insisted on them, which eased a few worries.” He enjoyed falling back into his routine and welcomed in customers he had not seen in over 4 months. “It was so nice to catch up with locals and the regulars and see how they were keeping.”
A loss of the usual lively atmosphere has been something that both consumers and workers have felt in abundance. Whether it is an afternoon meal, a quiet pint or a night on the town, Galway is a city that comes alive and nowhere else is that shown more than in its pubs. Tigh Neachtains in particular buzzes with activity and the restrictions placed on it by level 3 and now level 5 have almost made it feel as though there isn’t even oxygen left in the room. Cormac stated, “not seeing the pub in its usual atmosphere and capacity was strange to work in…It is incredibly strange to watch customers queue for a seat, for the same amount of time that they will be allowed to sit there.”
He also mentioned the growing unease felt by businesses, “No one knew what to expect, but in the last few weeks, as cases started to grow and business didn’t slow down, it was worrying. The suggestion of level 5 caused a bit of a scare so level 3 restrictions were welcomed. The closure of the hospitality sector once again, will be a major setback to the community as a whole. Businesses are just now getting used to the rules and regulations in place and are adapting to functioning with the virus. The closure of businesses will be a major step backwards and without support from the government, we may never see them open their doors again.”
He praised the efforts businesses have gone to, in order to protect their staff and their customers. “I have to give credit to premises that are prioritising the health of customers and staff ahead of business needs. A lot of places are finding they must adapt or die in order to meet even basic overheads, such as rent, while conforming to new regulations.”
He hopes the government will support businesses in the wake of a second lockdown, because if they don’t it is likely hundreds of premises are facing permanent closure. He stated “it has been hard for new businesses in 2020, to maintain any sense of optimism for their futures. Cases are rising and the ensuing lockdown may mean they will have to close their doors for the second time in their first year. The wage subsidy scheme the government has in place certainly means that wait staff could be paid, as a lot of other businesses couldn’t afford to do this now.”
He urges commercial landlords to have compassion in the face of a global crisis and “not put financial pressure on businesses to pay rent.” He reveals his disbelief at the high price of rent during the previous lockdown, stating, “hearing how much rent certain pubs and restaurants had to pay during the last lockdown, I was genuinely shocked to see them reopen.” He concludes, “if they have to continue paying high rent during a second lockdown then we won’t see the inside of a lot of them again.”