How things were done by local entertainment and dining businesses in February 2020 will not come close to being enough this summer and beyond. That much is clear. It is a new world we live in and that will not change however much we want it to.
Seasoned veterans of the pub and entertainment sector such as Louis Fitzgerald can see that a whole new way of thinking is required. “We’re going to see an awful lot of changes, but we will be judged on how well we can satisfy our customers in terms of hygiene. It’s really a new business we’re starting again, because there’s no comparison to what we’ve ever done before.” This will be crucial because discerning customers will not just rush out to any old pub when restrictions are lifted. They will go where they feel safe. Hygiene and distancing will be the golden rules from hereon out.
Indeed, some of the effects of COVID-19 may well be with us for a decade or more. That thought alone should concentrate minds among decision-makers in every local authority around the island of Ireland. It is a frightening vista but if one thinks through the problem and how it affects each type of local enterprise there are solutions. What is clear is that how we did things just two months ago will not suffice. The emphasis must be on getting local businesses including pubs, cafes, clubs and restaurants back open but in as safe a way as possible.
Already nearby authorities are trying to work through various scenarios for the reopening of their local economy. For example, Kilkenny County Council is sizing up half a dozen approaches including introducing a one-way system in Kilkenny City plus having set delivery times then pedestrianizing streets outside those times.
Portlaoise can, indeed must, do something similar. Our county town should position itself as a safe dining and entertainment area. The bulk of our entertainment and dining businesses are on our county town’s main street. Therefore, introduce a set delivery time for all the businesses along the street. Insist that all deliveries be made by 10am each morning. Then close off the main street at both ends and the local cafes and restaurants can use the street itself as part of its business. Put the tables and chairs out there along with heaters and outdoor dining umbrellas and you double your ‘floor space’ immediately. Each outdoor space will have its own sanitisation unit. The pubs can follow suit when they open. It would be best to assign a time to each of these businesses when they can set up outside. It cuts down on the numbers on the main street. Come closing time; again, staggered for each business, the outdoor furniture is sanitised and put away to allow deliveries the next morning.
Turning the lights back on in every sense all along Portlaoise’s Main Street and beyond
There will be many arguments against this. Parking will be cited as an issue. However, there are many parking areas not far from the town’s main thoroughfare. To bolster their number, add in the parking spaces at local business parks once those parks’ businesses close in the evening. Also increase free parking times to four hours around the town. This will allow people time to call into the local gift shop, optician, jeweller and dry cleaner for example before heading out then for a meal and a drink.
Once parked up on the periphery of the town one can jump on one the ‘Park ‘n’ Ride’ buses provided for the few minutes it takes to get into the main street. The buses will be subject to the strict sanitising and distancing rules as every other business. On the days we get good weather stroll in from the Abbeyleix Road, Centrepoint, KeaLew or Lismard Business Parks instead. Have security personnel in place at these parking spots and everything is in place for a relaxed evening in our county town. It means jobs not only for café, pub, club and restaurant staff but also for local drivers and security staff. This renewed economic activity will also mean that commercial rates get paid again to our county council. A win win situation. Once it succeeds in Portlaoise the scheme can be rolled out in other towns around our county.