Ireland might be about to make a "substantial meal" of reopening the pubs 3 months ago

Ireland might be about to make a "substantial meal" of reopening the pubs

Things have gotten better.

This time two months ago, the National Public Health Emergency Team informed us that 1,040 new cases of Covid-19 had been recorded in the previous 24 hours. Things have gotten better since then. Phase 3 of the reopening strategy begins in two weeks.

To many that means one thing: once again, we might see the inside of a pub.

As we anxiously strike through the boxes on our calendars all the way down to 29 June, we're starting to look a lot like Lenny on the floor of Moe's Tavern, waiting for the sunbeam to reach 'Drinking Time'. And even though two-thirds of Irish people report drinking either the same amount or more since lockdown began - and two thirds of Irish men admit drinking to cope during lockdown - our desperation makes sense.

Faced with a virus as contagious and dangerous as Covid-19 and all this talk of the new normal, one starts to wonder if there would be any normal to return to beneath all the scary 'new'. We've longed for pubs to reopen, because if they're open, that means they must be safe. Right?

But pubs are also handsy, sweaty, careless places. Think of the man who will brush past everyone he can on his way to the jacks and return to the bar without having washed his hands. Paying in cash, touching the counter, bringing his hands to his face as he swigs his pint. I mean, this man was unpleasant before Covid-19, but now he's a menace to public health. And we all know that there are thousands of him.

People kiss strangers in pubs. People shout across the room to their mates in pubs. The typical pub setting is an atmosphere that little crown-shaped germy fella we know as Covid-19 would only love, sat at the bar like a boozehound licking every tap and glass.

Upon entering a pub, social distancing or not, hands sanitised or not, we are accepting a level of risk we wouldn't face by sitting in the park.

Fortunately, the government has come up with the way for us to protect ourselves. A solution both fiendish and brilliant in its simple intricacy.

Come closer and I'll tell you.

We're going to make everyone have a big feed with their pint. To use the technical jargon, pubs will now require patrons to order a 'substantial meal' along with their drinks.

Genius, no?

I can see how you might be thinking that a word like 'substantial' is vague enough to leave some wiggle room. One man's packet of Bacon Fries is another man's substantial meal, as the old saying goes. But we've worked that out too.

According to the Intoxicating Liquors Act of 1962 - I'm being serious - a substantial meal can be defined as something that costs five shillings - I'm not joking - and that in today's currency, that comes to about €9. Thereby removing any confusion about what is or is not a substantial meal. You need only consult your statute book and shillings calculator, my lad.

But these elixirs, will they decrease our chances of catching this disease that has killed almost half a million people worldwide in just a matter of months?

Shepherd's pie? A carbonara? Fish and chips? Alas, no. Simon Harris confirmed in Dáil Éireann this afternoon that the substantive meal is not a medical solution to Covid-19.

The substantial meal is more of a social solution.

Theoretically, the price will drive down demand, keeping people who can't or won't spend the money out of the pubs.

Theoretically, the meal will keep people in their seats, because even the most optimistic among us know pub staff will have one hell of a time implementing the one (or even two) metre social distancing once people burst through the saloon doors.

Theoretically, a 90-minute time limit will prevent people getting drunk. Those are the hopeful principles underpinning this plan.

The highly sophisticated formula looks something like this: x number of pints divided/(1 metre times 90 minutes) + one substantial meal = sorted. Bring on 29 June.

Throughout the pandemic, all of us have been forced to ascend a steep and slippery curve of learning. There can be no doubt that in 10 years' time, much will be said about what could have been done better. Not just by the government, or the NPHET, but us as individuals, as consumers, as employers. And when that time comes and hindsight sharpens into its famous 20:20 focus, some of those mistakes will look obvious.

How we handle our reopening of the pubs could well fall under that category.

The sharpest warning sign is the contrivance of it all. The refusal to acknowledge that we are letting the chips fall where they may, preferably to the side of something more substantial. It's the pretence that this is safe, and that silly rules like spending €9 on some chicken wings, or leaving after 90 minutes, makes it safer again.

We aren't doing this because people have stopped dying, or cases have stopped transmitting, or because the threat has passed. We aren't doing this because we've found a way to stop the virus spreading in pubs, or because a burger is a bulwark against infection.

We're doing it because we miss the pub.

And there are many valid arguments in favour of reopening the pubs. Thousands can return to work and secure their income, life will be breathed into small businesses once more, and most importantly, the core institution of Irish social life will be resurrected.

But we must be prepared to take responsibility for the other lives we might put at risk.