DUBLIN — Ireland, which for months has maintained the toughest pandemic restrictions in Europe, has finally charted a path back to normal — which means it’s almost time to hit the pub.
Government plans published Friday night clear the way for hotels and B&Bs to reopen June 2. Dining and drinking at restaurants and pubs can resume five days later, but only outdoors. To that end, key roads in central Dublin, Cork and Galway have been altered to restrict cars and create al fresco-friendly spaces.
“After the trauma of the last 15 months, we are finally taking definite steps towards enjoying normal times with friends and loved ones again,” Prime Minister Micheál Martin declared in a national TV address. “We are almost back to a point where we can just enjoy the ordinary — extraordinary — moments in our lives. The sense of hope, excitement and relief is palpable.”
The biggest leap is set for July 5, when bars and restaurants can start serving customers indoors for the first time since Christmas Eve. For several thousand pubs that lack food service and outdoor space, this will be their first chance to pour a pint since March 15, 2020.
“The end of our trade’s 15-month nightmare is now in sight,” said Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the Vintners Federation of Ireland, which represents more than 4,000 pubs nationwide.
The government plan also allows cinemas, gyms and swimming pools to reopen in early June, followed by heavily restricted admission for spectators at professional rugby, soccer and Gaelic sporting events.
For many, it will be the first taste of normality since December, when the government eased lockdown for the holidays — and soon regretted it as tens of thousands of Irish traveling home from Britain helped spread the more infectious Kent variant of the virus.
While the early reopening of hotels aims to kickstart domestic tourism, the Irish will maintain their controversial system of requiring people flying in from scores of mostly African and South American countries to pay for two weeks of hotel-based quarantine upon arrival.
In a surprise move, Ireland took the United States, France and Belgium off that list Friday night. This means that passengers who began their trip in the U.S. or any EU nation will no longer be forced into those quarantine centers. Officially, they will be expected to self-isolate within their own accommodation, but this unenforced policy is widely flouted.
On July 19, Ireland will reopen EU-wide air travel for its own citizens in possession of an EU-recognized Digital COVID Certificate confirming they have been vaccinated or tested negative for the disease.
However, Ireland has delayed confirming whether these travel relaxations will similarly apply for visitors from Britain, where the more contagious Indian variant poses a particular risk. Ireland currently has fewer than 100 confirmed cases of that variant.