Northern Ireland

Coronavirus: NI hotels and bars reopen their doors

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Media captionBBC News NI explains what customers can expect as pubs and restaurants reopen

Northern Ireland's hotels, bars, restaurants and cafes have reopened, after months of closure during the coronavirus lockdown.

Pubs and bars must serve food and operate on a table service basis; those pubs that do not serve food will be allowed to sell alcohol outdoors.

The tourism industry had been given an initial indicative date of 20 July, but had lobbied for earlier re-opening.

Economy Minister Diane Dodds hailed Friday as a "great day".

The hospitality sector was a cornerstone of Northern Ireland's economy, employing 65,000 people and generating £1bn in revenue each year, said Mrs Dodds.

"But these businesses also represent something more," she added.

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"They are the places people go to socialise, relax and enjoy themselves.

"People will be very pleased to once again have the opportunity to visit cafés, hotels, pubs, restaurants and visitor attractions."

Two further Covid-19 related deaths were reported by the Department of Health on Friday, bringing its total since the start of the pandemic to 554.

Four more people tested positive for the virus.

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In the week up to 26 June, the government statistics agency Nisra said the virus was mentioned on the death certificates of 12 people, meaning there were a total of 826 Covid-19 related deaths up to that date.

In the Republic of Ireland there have been two further deaths from Covid-19 bringing the total number to 1,740.

Nine additional cases of coronavirus were confirmed bring the total number of cases in the country to 25,498.

What else can open?

Visitor attractions such as museums and heritage sites also reopened on Friday, including the Marble Arch Caves in Fermanagh and the Giant's Causeway on the north coast.

Giant's Causeway general manager Max Bryant said: "We are delighted to be able to reopen the site and we're really looking forward to welcoming visitors back.

"The safety of our staff, volunteers and visitors is our top priority and we have been working hard behind the scenes to implement social distancing measures and hygiene practices. "

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Image caption The Giant's Causeway is Northern Ireland's most popular tourist attraction

Tourists wishing to visit Rathlin Island using the ferry service are now permitted to do so, but capacity on board vessels will be restricted due to social distancing measures.

Although hotels have reopened, their spas and leisure facilities remain closed for now.

Betting shops have also been able to reopen on Friday.

What will eateries look like?

The first and deputy first ministers had previously stressed that social distancing rules must be adhered to by all those businesses seeking to reopen.

Last month, the Stormont executive agreed to reduce social distancing in Northern Ireland from 2m (6ft) to 1m, with restrictions.

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Image caption Changed times - the inside of Harbour and Company in Donaghadee, which reopened on Friday

Members of the hospitality industry had argued the 1m move was necessary to help them restart their businesses.

Jody Waterworth, who runs Pier 36 and Harbour and Company in Donaghadee, County Down, said he is adopting the 1m social distancing guidance while trying to make sure customers had "as normal an experience as possible".

"We've put measures in place on a social distance front and we've got both restaurants ready and we're looking forward to receiving the customers," he told BBC News NI.

"I feel the time is right, the cases of the virus are low and the trend is going lower and lower.

"We've been given the directive to go."

Image caption Hotels in Northern Ireland opened their doors again on Friday

Martina O'Neill runs Brook Lodge Guest House in Magherafelt said she still wants to make staying there a professional and enjoyable experience.

It is now "going to be massively different and it's going to be a real challenge for us," she said.

"Usually me and my husband would go out and meet guests and give them a handshake. Now we'll greet them at a social distance."

Joan Noble, the owner of Riverfront Coffee House in Omagh, County Tyrone, said there were some nerves about reopening, but added that she was looking forward to it.

Customers seated at tables are now shielded by a Perspex screen and "they should feel very safe within it", she said.

"The virus is here - it's not going anywhere, it's not going away and to get open again we have to put staff and customers at the top of the list," said Ms Noble.

"We just have to make sure they're safe - to do that we have taken big measures. We want to get people back out again".

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However, Simon McCance of Ginger Bistro in Belfast will not be opening his business until at least the start of August.

"Personally, as an employer with a duty of care to my staff, I feel it's just a little bit risky," he said.

"We are in a situation where we can afford to stay closed but we can't open and close again, if something like what has happened in Leicester or Florida or Texas [happens], that would be devastating for me."

'Follow advice'

Hospitality Ulster's Colin Neill asked the public to adopt a sensible approach to the sector's reopening.

"It is vital that everyone adheres to the social distancing guidelines so that the wider industry can prosper in the future," he said.

"It is in the best interest of the industry in the long term that it is successfully reopened so that jobs and livelihoods are not affected. We simply cannot afford to see a spike in cases and a second lockdown," he added.

Image caption Bars in Belfast had been shut since the start of the pandemic in March

Mr Neill said there's now an onus on the executive to give a reopening date for non-food pubs.

In the north west, the manager of Derry City Centre Initiative Jim Roddy said he has "full confidence" in pub, restaurant and hotel owners to effectively navigate working within all the health regulations.

He estimates that around 50% of bars in Derry will reopen on Friday.

"I hope people come into our city centre today, remain safe and enjoy what the city has to offer," Mr Roddy said.

On Thursday Health Minister Robin Swann urged people to drink responsibly if returning to bars while Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride urged the public not to put at risk the progress made in the fight against coronavirus.

Guidance to help businesses keep staff and customers safe has been published on the Tourism NI and nibusinessinfo websites.

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