National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) advice was for the sector to close at 5pm, but the Government yesterday announced an 8pm cut-off.
“We didn’t see this coming,” said Mr O’Kane, owner of Fire restaurant at Dublin’s Mansion House as well as Sole Seafood and Grill restaurant on South William Street.
He was shocked when a letter from Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, recommending the early closure of hospitality and the curtailment of attendances at outdoor events be limited to 50pc capacity or 5,000 people, was leaked.
The recommendation called for a curfew at all indoor theatres, cinemas, entertainment, cultural and sporting events as well as a reduction to 50pc of capacity.
But it is the hospitality industry in particular that has been brought to its knees throughout the pandemic.
A curfew will decimate the industry, Mr O’Kane told the
. “There’s so many independent businesses that won’t make it if this goes through,” he said.
Restaurateurs have done everything the State has asked of them to stay in business, including spacing out tables to allow for social distancing, implementing strict mask-wearing protocols and hand sanitisers and, in his case, conducting antigen tests on all staff twice a week.
“Everything they’ve asked, we’ve done,” Mr O’Kane said. “Hospitality has taken one for Team Ireland, but this was like a dig in the heart.”
He will have to immediately cancel hundreds of individual bookings at both restaurants for next week, which is typically the busiest week of the year, which he said was a disaster.
While he could still remain open for lunch, he said the bulk of his bookings are for evening meals and he would question whether he would bother opening at all.
“It’s an informal close-down,” he said.
Aside from the devastating impact on his 140 staff – who rely on generous tips during the festive season to supplement their incomes – Mr O’Kane said he will struggle even more to find staff who are willing to work in such a precarious environment.
“We lost so many good people to this,” he said of staff who left the industry during lockdowns. “It’s a massive nail in the coffin.”
The Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) said the recommendation is “effectively a full lockdown of the trade that will have a devastating impact on members, their families and staff”.
Noting that 90pc of turnover is generated after 5pm, VFI chief executive Padraig Cribben said the proposed closing time was devastating news for the trade and was hard to come to terms with.
“After so many lockdowns, along with the desperately slow reopening of the trade during the summer and the promise of no further shutdowns, this proposal would effectively be a full lockdown,” he said. “Over 90pc of pub turnover is generated at night time, so closing early is not viable.
“In fact, any reduction in the current trading hours will crush many businesses.
“What is proposed is effectively full closure of the sector, and would have to come with a full suite of supports.”
He added that the curfew will only “drive people from well-run pubs following the guidelines to unregulated parties and shebeens”.
“Over 94pc of the population is fully vaccinated, the booster programme is proceeding at pace, so why are we going backwards?’ he asked.
“The virus looks like it will be with us for years to come, so at some point we need to switch to living alongside Covid instead of living in fear.
“We need a clear plan, but right now the Government is sadly lacking a pathway out of this mess.”
It is not only the hospitality sector that will suffer, according to Duncan Graham, managing director of Retail Excellence Ireland.
“Hospitality and retail go hand in glove,” he said.
While the hospitality sector will suffer the most, there will be a knock-on effect for retail as many people who would normally go for a meal or drink after doing their Christmas shopping will either go for an early meal or drink instead of shopping, or just leave town early.
“What will happen is if restaurants and pubs shut early it will lead to an exodus that would impact on evening shopping,” Mr Graham said, adding that Covid-19 has already led to a dramatic fall-off in footfall in urban areas, especially in Dublin where footfall is down by between 25pc and 30pc due to the lack of tourists and people working in the city.
Despite this setback, retailers are buoyant as they head into the busiest shopping weekend of the year.
“In terms of trading, we’re trading ahead of 2019 levels but footfall is down and there has been a continuation of people shopping online,” Mr Graham said.
Anthony Ryan, owner of Anthony Ryan’s Department Store in Galway city, said there will be a definite impact on trade under the curfew. While he also expects today to be one of the busiest shopping days of the year, he said the “uncertainty over the Omicron variant will affect people’s confidence”.