'Chaos' over regulations for outdoor hospitality venues in NI

The hospitality sector has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: UTV

There have been calls for clarity around the issue of outdoor hospitality ahead of its reopening on Friday.

The reopening of hospitality after four months of closure has been widely welcomed, however, a number of bars have said they will not be able to reopen after being told their outdoor areas to 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.

Hospitality Ulster say the late publication of regulations has caused chaos and left many businesses unable to open.

The Health Minister described the confusion about outdoor spaces as "hugely disappointing."

In a statement released on Wednesday night, Robin Swann said: "I ensured that in our regulations, there was no change to the position from that which applied last year.

"This was to ensure that as we moved into a controlled and phased reopening, there would be clarity and certainty as regards that position."

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."

Finance Minister Conor Murphy said the issue was discussed at a meeting of the Executive on Thursday and that they want people to be able to open their doors as planned and that there was "no desire to put any additional obstacles in anyone's way."

The Chief Executive of Hospitality Ulster is calling for urgent engagement between the sector and local government.

Colin Neill said:  “As we get closer to the first wave of reopening outdoor, our members are getting in contact in their droves, worried that they won’t be able to get back to business as the regulations and their interpretation are far too stringent.

“In reality, the idea of outdoor being opened again is meaningless if only a relatively small number of venues can actually make it work."

Mr Neill added: “This is not the time to be playing with the livelihoods of business owners and we are demanding that the Executive intervenes and remedies this. A level of common sense needs to be brought to this problem as the sector has worked so hard and taken every precaution to get the outdoor element open this weekend.

"We need the Executive to engage with us and be pragmatic about this real and present issue that we are facing in the next couple of days.”