“Let’s hope we can all weather the storm”: the effect of restrictions on Irish pubs

With many pubs across the country forced to close their doors for a second time due to the rise in cases in recent weeks, it breathes more uncertainty for the license trade. Ciaron Noble spoke with Kildare man Dave Mahon whose family have been at the heart of the license trade in Leinster for over half a century. 

Publicans are closing their doors for the second time this year. Video courtesy of Mahon’s pub in Kildare.

Many businesses have been massively impacted by the pandemic, which has been causing havoc within many sectors and greatly damaging our economy. You could argue however that the pub/license trade has felt the greatest wrath of business closures more than any other industry. 

JJ Mahons of Kildare Town has been in the wholesale business for over 70 years, while also running a pub on the main street.  Over time they have become one of the largest independent drink distributors in the Leinster area and like pubs nationwide, they have been massively affected by Covid-19. 

The pub itself has only been open for a period of two weeks since the middle of March. “The wholesale/bottling business hasn’t really functioned properly since the start of March – we would have had staff of at least 30 and now we probably have less than six people, and three of those are family,” said manager Dave Mahon. “Percentage wise currently we are probably doing 5-10% of our usual turnover.”

There are undoubtedly countless pubs in a similar boat to the one Mahons find themselves in. Many of the pubs that were forced to shut in March have had to close their doors permanently and while we are in the midst of the second wave, we might see more publicans forced to close their doors indefinitely. We can’t rule out further waves meaning that it really will be survival of the fittest in the industry. 

“The only pubs that will probably survive are the old ones where the mortgage is paid off or where they’re family run, but even at that they’ll need to be doing volume if they’re going to survive,” said Mahon.

It is felt by some publicans that the government should have protected the license trade by introducing a minimum union price on sales of alcohol across supermarkets and other outlets to enable publicans to compete with prices. 

“Let’s be honest here, why would anyone go to the pub if you can buy a bottle of vodka in the supermarket for half nothing – if the government was to do anything for the license trade they need to introduce minimum unit pricing,” Mahon urged. 

Since the budget last week, the government hae brought in a new support system that will help the pub and hospitality sector. The plan will see businesses who have been forced to close because of current restrictions receive up to a maximum of €5,000 per week. This is a proposal that generally seems to be welcomed by many, as a starting point for much needed assistance during this crisis. 

People haven’t forgotten the video of a packed Temple Bar near the beginning of the national public health emergency, with the majority of publicans agreeing with public health guidelines at the time. “It was the logical thing to do, I get why the government had to close the pubs, it made sense,” Mahon agreed. 

Mahon’s, like many pubs across the country, don’t serve food which prohibited them from opening in late June, missing out on the majority of the summer trade. This is a period where the industry is usually quite busy and they make a good slice of their yearly revenue. During this time-frame the virus was at its lowest point, with the number of daily cases greatly reduced from the peak in March/April. 

“While the cases were low, I know a good few pubs that could have opened safely with big outdoor areas and at least they would have made a bit of money before the imminent 2nd lockdown, instead of letting us open when cases started to rise again for a period of two weeks,” Mahon remarked.

With more uncertainty looming in the coming months it’s unclear when Mahon’s pub will be allowed to open again and when the wholesale business will be back in full flow once more. Welcoming the idea of additional help from the government, Mahon outlined his hopes for the future, stressing that the government should increase mortgage breaks and help protect the publicans. 

“I hope the government encourages people to go to hotels, restaurants and pubs when this is all over, no sector has been financially hit harder than these sectors. Let’s hope we can all weather the storm, it’s a long winter.”

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