DUBLIN – Ireland is already focused on Christmas. It's a major national priority.
Unless the country can get the COVID-19 pandemic under control, there won’t be much Christmas cheer this year in Galway, Cork or Dublin.
With infections on the rise, the government has imposed a tough new lockdown that begins at midnight Wednesday, shutting down non-essential shops, limiting restaurants to takeout service and ordering people to stay within five kilometers (three miles) of their homes for the next six weeks.
The restrictions are among the toughest in Europe, and Prime Minister Micheal Martin said he imposed them in part to ensure Ireland can celebrate Christmas “in a meaningful way.”
That message has won the support of many business owners, even in the hard-hit hospitality industry which was still recovering from an earlier lockdown that slashed revenue and triggered layoffs in the spring.
Paul Cadden, owner of the Saba Restaurant Group, will have to lay off 20 people, but will do takeaway, hampers, anything necessary, to get by until lockdown ends. He hopes the new restrictions will bring the virus under control in time for the all-important holiday season.
“Nobody wants to be closed, but for the greater good, you know,” Cadden told The Associated Press. “It’s all to play for for Christmas. And if everybody takes it seriously and, you know, we all lock down and do what we’re told, hopefully we can get a run into the December period.”
Ireland has had little success in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in recent weeks, even as it has slowly ratcheted up restrictions on social and business interactions. The infection rate stood at 279 cases per 100,000 people in the 14 days through Tuesday, compared with 96 per 100,000 in the period through Sept. 30.
With a population of about 5 million, Ireland has recorded 1,865 deaths related to COVID-19.
In announcing that he was moving the entire country into the highest level of restrictions in the government’s five-tier strategy, Martin appealed for optimism at a time many have experienced loss.
“The days are getting shorter and colder, but I ask you to remember this: Even as the winter comes in, there is hope and there is light,” he told the nation on Monday night. “It won’t be the same Christmas that we’ve enjoyed in years past, but if we all pull together and follow the spirit of these new rules, it will be a very special time and will give us all some respite from the hardship of the last seven months.’’
But the measure also makes economic sense to some business owners because it has the potential to save the Christmas season.
Cadden, a past president of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, said that between corporate events and family gatherings, Christmas can account for 40% of the annual revenue for some establishments.
Sean Collender, co-owner of the Kinara chain of Pakistani restaurants, supports the new measures but says the government needs a long-term strategy to prevent a series of lockdowns and re-openings that will be hard on workers and force some businesses to close permanently.
“The government need to come up with a plan, because if we’re just shutting to reopen to shut to reopen to shut we have a major problem ahead for all our businesses,” he said.
Even those in retail, who will lose key shopping days before the holiday, are hopeful — although they wish the lockdown had come earlier.
Jennie Flynn, owner of the Designist gift and homeware shop in Dublin, is hoping that the shift toward online shopping will help save her Christmas season. Traditionally, about 80% of her business comes from in-store sales this time of year, but she’ll be totally reliant on the internet until her shop is allowed to reopen.
“Irish people are very behind this, behind making the best of the situation,’’ she said. “That makes me feel able to keep going.”
Business owners seem to be almost willing the lockdown to work because they, like everyone in Ireland, need a break from the loneliness, suffering and death.
“We all want Christmas to happen. We all want time with our families. We all need hugs,’’ Cadden said “And we all need to be able to look forward to sitting around a restaurant table with our friends, sharing great food, having a laugh and saying, ‘Wow, got through that.’”
Associated Press Writer Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this story.
Follow AP pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak