Impact of Covid-19 on the Restaurant Industry: Discussion

Our guest, Mr. Paul Treyvaud, is welcome to the meeting. We are meeting with him to discuss the challenges facing the restaurant industry as a result of Covid-19. Obviously, this is very timely, following the announcements yesterday.

I have some housekeeping that I must go through first so I ask everyone to please bear with me. The format of the meeting is such that I will invite Mr. Treyvaud to make an opening statement of three minutes, followed by questions from the committee members. Mr. Treyvaud is probably aware the committee may publish the opening statement on its website following today's meeting.

Before I invite Mr. Treyvaud to deliver his opening statement, which is limited to three minutes, I advise him of the following in relation to parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name, or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in any speech that may be regarded as damaging to the good name of that person or entity. Therefore, if witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory in relation to any identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply.

As the witness today is attending remotely from outside Leinster House campus, he should please note that there are limitations in relation to parliamentary privilege. As such, he may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present does.

I invite Mr. Treyvaud to make his opening statement.

Mr. Paul Treyvaud

I thank the Chair and members of committee. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on the restaurant industry. Obviously, yesterday’s announcements were not what we were expecting. I want to give the committee a brief background on what has been going on in our industry since March 2020. We closed on 15 March 2020, like pretty much every other restaurant, before we were told to. We have traded for three out of the last 16 months. Since then, it has gone downhill. We had maybe six busy weeks last summer. There was no spike or surge in the numbers at that time.

We were locked down again 5 October 2020, and we pivoted back as a pop-up deli, like most businesses which have been doing a take-away or whatever they have had to do to survive. We did not reopen for the two-week gap at Christmas, because we thought we knew what was coming. Also, suppliers had told us no credit would be given for this time and it was up to us if we were to reopen. Therefore, we could not take the risk. Yet, we were still blamed for the surge in hospitalisation, intensive care unit, ICU, numbers, and the number of deaths. This is not a nice thing to be told, now that the data clearly state that this was not the case and all of this started beforehand.

Since then, we have not earned a single cent. We are sitting here waiting. To this day, we still have no idea when we are getting back to work. Our staff are still asking me when they will be able to earn their salaries. To say that this is utter carnage is an understatement.

Since January, 97% of cases were the UK variant. The Delta variant has been in the country for the best part of two or three months. I just heard it said in the Dáil that this is one of the few countries that has mandatory hotel quarantine. This beggars the question as to who is not doing his or her job. We have done everything we have been told to do and yet these variants are getting into the country. As I said, we are quite creative in the kitchen, but none of us knows the formula of any of these variants. It was not us who brought them in.

They are coming from somewhere.

I love my profession way too much to let this be the scapegoat for any longer. We have to stand up and fight. We sat and waited patiently. We did everything we were supposed to do and yet it is so hard to keep doing it when up the road for me a different premises is allowed do indoor dining and I am not. I just do not understand it. Nobody in my industry understands how it is safe in one premises but not in another. None of us expected what came out yesterday. It was a dagger through our heart which is probably the sixth or seventh one we have taken in the last 16 months.

The tourism and hospitality industry is probably the most important pillar of the economy. If that crashes, everything will crash. We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of the carnage that is coming down the road. The biggest let-down by our Government, as far as I am concerned, is to be told we are non-essential to the society over which it wishes to govern and that our livelihoods are non-essential. That is not easy to take. Everyone in this industry works extremely hard. We work 14- or 16-hour days. We ensure people enjoy themselves and that they have a great time in a bar or restaurant. We do it safely, and we have done that since day one. As I sit here today, I still have no idea how it can be done somewhere else, but not in my premises, or in any other restaurant or bar around the country.

On 12 May, I launched what was known as “the plan”. We contacted every single politician and there are quite a few here today. We got some incredible support from members of this committee. “The plan” was the right course of action. I said to open up all hospitality on 2 June at the exact same time, with the same guidelines and conditions, otherwise we would face catastrophic disaster going forward. Everything I said that was going to happen has happened, with staff issues, with cancellations, with people moving up North and with people going abroad on holidays. Just yesterday I took 500 cancellations throughout the month of July and the first two weeks of August. I had 500 cancellations in a six-week period. That was just in Treyvaud’s restaurant. I have spoken to people in many other places who have faced the exact same thing.

At this stage, I do not know how far beyond trouble we are. It is a disaster. I do not want to take up any more of the committee’s time. I am available to answer any questions.

I thank Mr. Treyvaud. It is evident how devastating it is. I am glad we have him here today because he is at the coalface trying to run a business and to keep people employed. We appreciate his time. I ask my colleagues to indicate if they wish to offer any comments, reflections, or questions.

I thank Mr. Treyvaud. I heard his contribution on Newstalk yesterday. It is heart-rending. The recent announcements have sent shock waves through restaurant industry and, indeed, publican industry. It is devastating for everyone who was looking forward to the reopening, not only those in the business but the customers of restaurants and local pubs. Everyone was looking forward to it and it is devastating to everybody. He said that some restaurants have fallen but have not realised it yet. Could he please expand on that?

Mr. Paul Treyvaud

I thank the Deputy for his question. Put simply, it is easy to run a business when it is closed. You have no idea of bills that are going out or of anything. That is where we currently are. It has been referred to as kind of a "zombie state". They have fallen off the cliff without realising it. They will only see it once we reopen, that is, if we reopen.

Once people reopen, the subsidies will come to halt in the next month, which is what we have been led to believe. It is important to understand that we have had no cash flow. We got through last winter because until then we had traded as normal. This year, we had no Christmas season, shoulder season or spring season. We have been closed in June and in July. Rural Ireland, in particular, has a three- to four-month maximum window to get us back to next March and April, to the start of next season. We will lose half of that. In my opinion, there is a good chance we will lose all of it, with the way things are going. People do not realise that their business is gone and they will only see that in the coming weeks or months when they get to reopen.

I thank Mr. Treyvaud for candidly sharing his views with the committee and the views generally of his colleagues across Ireland. Everyone on this committee will know his restaurant very well from the main street.

What is Mr. Treyvaud's view on the domestic vaccine passport for indoor dining for restaurants and bars? If it is cleared legally by the Attorney General and others who are looking at this, does he believe that it is workable? Would he implement it?

Mr. Paul Treyvaud

I will be very honest. It is next to impossible to implement. Who am I to ask someone at the front door of my restaurant if they are vaccinated? I might as well ask someone what colour underpants he or she is wearing. It is none of my business. If it is passed legally, so be it. However, is there a discrimination factor there? There absolutely is. My peers, colleagues and friends in the industry to whom I have spoken have said the exact same thing. We are going to find it next to impossible, because it is none of our business. I do not know how it will be implemented, to be perfectly honest. We are supposed to have it ready on 19 July, if that is when we are supposed to reopen. I do not know how it will be done or policed.

I welcome Mr. Treyvaud. I have a brief question in regard to the rise in cases before Christmas and how things spiralled in December, January and February. NPHET and the Government are raising concerns with us in terms of the profiling that has been done. What are Mr. Treyvaud's views on what occurred last December versus what is predicted to happen over the next number of weeks, right up to September? How can high-risk sectors, like hospitality, bars and restaurants, counteract that argument, and implement safe measures? What are his thoughts on antigen testing as a risk mitigation factor? I would like to hear his views on the supports being provided by Government.

Mr. Paul Treyvaud

I thank the Deputy for his question as well as for his public support of “the plan”. It was greatly appreciated. On the surge in winter, the data show that it started before any restaurants or bars reopened. What is coming out is that it seems to be a seasonal virus. The big difference was that there is no vaccine, but there is now. That is clear as day. I am not a medical professional, but many medical professionals are saying this. I might not be smart enough to digest everything, but I can digest much of the data.

It is a different country and society now. We have 4.1 million people vaccinated. When we compare the death rate in 2020 with that in 2019, it was pretty much on a par with the last five years. It was actually less than in 2018. If we take out the mistake that was made by taking the elderly out of hospitals and putting them in care homes, it would have been significantly less.

I cannot run my business based on speculative figures which, as far as I am concerned, are what have been given. We were told the worst-case scenario was 700,000 cases. I cannot understand that. I hope politicians have nailed down the people giving them this advice and that they ask them how they can say that in the next three months we will have almost three times the number of cases we have had since this pandemic started. I hope they ask them also how they can say we will have almost half the number of deaths we have had since this pandemic started in a three-month period when we have had 4.1 million people vaccinated. The question has to be asked: what is the point of the vaccine if it will not have any effect?

Data coming from Europe says the Delta variant is a lot more transmissible but it is not as lethal by any means. Anybody will tell you the history of viruses. They always become more transmissible, but it does not mean they will become more lethal. In fact, they do not normally become more lethal.

It is not up to me. I can only do what I can for my industry. That is why I am here today. It is up to the committee to turn around to the people giving them the information and ask them to answer these questions. I cannot prepare for 100 people in my restaurant tomorrow if I have only four booked. Although I might pick up another 96, I have to go with the figures that are the facts. There are facts on the death rates, vaccination rates and the Delta variant, as opposed to previous variants. I refer to what is happening throughout Europe. If it is dangerous, and I do not know if NPHET has given the committee this advice, then why do we not shut everything down? Why do we not shut everything that is indoors? I do not want to see another business closed. It is hard enough having my business closed as well as all the restaurants. I do not want to see a hotel or a hairdressers close.

If logic dictates that it is more dangerous in a bar or restaurant, then that logic also dictates that it must be just as dangerous within any other four walls.

With regard to subsidies, we do not know the situation because it chops and changes every day. We hear that they will be pulled on a certain date, but that date is then extended. The single most important subsidy for restaurants and bars at the moment is the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. The day that stops is the day there will be absolute carnage.

We have to open. It is still not too late for members of the committee to go back to their political parties and independent alliances and say that we got this wrong and we have to open up on 5 July.

I have had Treyvaud’s restaurant for 20 years and I have been in hospitality for 35 years. If you want medical advice, go to medical experts, but if you want hospitality advice, trust me and come to me. I know what I am talking about. I can bring members to hundreds of people who know what they are talking about. This is going to explode on this Government. If we think we have problems now, what is coming down the line this winter will be 1,000-fold on what we are experiencing at the moment.

I will give colleagues another opportunity to come in. We have ten minutes left. I call Deputy Christopher O’Sullivan.

It is hard to know what to say to Mr. Treyvaud at this point, considering what he has been through, what he is going through and what is coming down the line. I will jump straight into the questions, because I do not think anything I can say will comfort him. He mentioned 500 cancellations for the month of August. Can he give a rough guess of what that might mean in monetary terms, so that we can have an idea of the kinds of losses people are experiencing? He mentioned that he would like for us to go back to our respective leaders and ask for the opening of indoor dining on 5 July 2021. In the absence of that happening, which I imagine in all likelihood will be the case, what measures would he like us to take between now and 19 July to try to save the industry? What can be done in the shoulder season to try to mitigate the impact of these closures? Has he any suggestions there?

On the vaccine passport, I have had more representations from 22-year-olds in the last 24 hours than restaurateurs, cafe owners, and publicans. This is because of how they feel about the vaccine passport and its potential for discrimination, and I think Deputy Dillon mentioned this. Is there room for a mixture of vaccinations and antigen testing to allow for maximum accessibility to the entire market?

Mr. Paul Treyvaud

The simple answer to the last part of the question is “Yes”. At this stage, we will do anything that helps us to get back open. The Deputy asked what he can do. Let us start with the percentage of revenue. Each year, in the four months of the summer - June, July, August and September - we probably take in 75% to 80% of our revenue. That gets us through October to April. We will not get that this year. We are already down 50% of that 70% to 80%. It will get worse given the number of people who have cancelled hotels, guest houses and restaurants. They say they cannot take the risk of staying in Kerry, much as they would love to, because we still might not be open and, with the greatest respect, they do not want to spend a week in a hotel. They do not want to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in a hotel. It is great that there are potentially outdoor dining facilities. However, what do we do if it rains?

The money we will be down in our summer season will be a huge issue. I explained back in April and May that this was a major threat.

I might move on because I am concerned that we will run out of time.

Mr. Paul Treyvaud

I remember one thing, Chair. She asked what she could do to help. I will tell her what she can do to help me. If she can argue and debate my points and beat me, I will stand down and say she is 100% correct. I will bow down to her superior knowledge. If she cannot, then maybe her political career will potentially be under threat. There will be serious implications for some political parties. I do not know if they are going to be wiped out. I do not know if they are going to be able to canvass-----

I am going to move on. We will stick to the point, purpose and theme of the meeting, if that is all right with Mr. Treyvaud.

Mr. Paul Treyvaud

No problem. Go back and say-----

I call Senator Malcolm Byrne-----

Mr. Paul Treyvaud

Go back and say that maybe we got this wrong and we need to challenge the data.

I call Senator Malcolm Byrne.

I thank Mr. Treyvaud for his presentation. I know the sector is going through a difficult period at the moment. The comparison is made with indoor dining in the rest of Europe. Mr. Treyvaud is looking at the arguments we need to make. I support the need to move to a situation where we can see a safe resumption of indoor dining. However, we have got to get public confidence behind that.

Different models are used in other European countries. In Denmark, which is often cited, there is the Coronapas model and antigen testing. Does Mr. Treyvaud have another example from a European country that we could consider using?

I am opposed to the idea of young people being discriminated against. I do not like the idea of young people being able to work in the hospitality sector and serve people, but at the same time not be able to avail safely of a meal indoors. That may mean we have to have antigen testing or something in place. There are examples to be learned from Denmark.

While there are criticisms of, and difficulties with, NPHET, it has a particular role. It provides scientific advice. It has expressed a particular level of caution around variants. Mr. Treyvaud is right about the vaccination programme; its roll-out is in a race with variants. However, why does he think that we should recommend that Government should ignore NPHET’s advice?

I will come in before Mr. Treyvaud answers that. I want to ensure he gets to hear and answer all the questions, so I will invite Deputy Brendan Griffin and Senator Micheál Carrigy to ask their questions and make their points. Mr. Treyvaud can answer all three members’ questions.

Good afternoon Mr. Trevyaud and everyone in Killarney. I have a slightly different view from Mr. Treyvaud in relation to the domestic green certificate. Restaurants could have been trading for the last four weeks had calls that I made in March to move on such an idea had been acted on. Now we are heading into July and we are starting to look at this. As far as I can see, it is far too late. I do not like the idea of domestic green certificates. However, other countries are using the system and it is working well.

Throughout this pandemic, we have taken a different approach to different age cohorts at different times. If we cast our minds back, there was a time when elderly people were being asked to cocoon. That was an age-specific measure. They were the ones who really lost out in that regard. However, as a stepping-stone to reopening and to a sustainable, long-term approach, in that we could have future variants and we want to avoid future lockdowns, we should pursue this. Of course, it would have to be worked out with industry. I welcome that is happening today, but it is far too late. Mr. Treyvaud said he was uneasy about this. On antigen testing, which is also delving into someone's personal health issues, would he feel comfortable with checking on entry to restaurants?

I have shared his view for a long time. I do not get the logic of allowing people to dine indoors in a hotel, but not allowing them to dine indoors in the restaurant next door. I have called on NPHET to brief all backbenchers. So far, only Ministers have been getting these briefings. To me, the figures do not add up. These figures are a doomsday scenario, considering that 40% of people are fully vaccinated, and 23% or 24% have had one vaccination.

NPHET should brief all of us in the Oireachtas. I want to ask it if it can point to any particular spikes or outbreaks as a result of indoor dining. Unless there is overwhelming evidence that this is a problem, it is over-reacting to make the type of recommendation that was made yesterday.

I will keep it brief. I concur with the comments Deputy Griffin made. Mr. Treyvaud mentioned what is coming down the line. Can he tell us exactly what that is? If there was a proposal on percentage capacity in order to get indoor dining open, at what level would a business need to trade so that it would not be trading at a negative cost?

I thank Senator Carrigy and all of my colleagues. I will give Mr. Treyvaud the final word on this. Yesterday in the Dáil I made the point that I feel strongly about this. We are talking against ourselves given yesterday’s restrictions. I live in a Border county but I have been to Killarney. When I went last summer, Mr. Treyvaud’s restaurant was fully booked up, which is a big accolade, and I could not get in. However, we are talking against ourselves and are creating a mass exodus of people who are going a couple of miles up the road to Belfast. It is wonderful that we can travel so freely across the State. However, when there are different rules in different parts of the island, we are talking against this idea of a staycation. Of course, 19 July is coming towards us. There will be airplanes full of people flying aboard for the simple reason that they can try the cuisine in various places right across Europe. It is really sad to see us on a different step from everywhere else in Europe. I agree with my colleagues that the figures do not stack up. I will give Mr. Treyvaud the final word.

Mr. Paul Treyvaud

I thank the Chair. The next time she is in Killarney she should give me a shout and I will find room for her.

I will start off by answering Senator Malcolm Byrne’s important question on whether we should ignore NPHET’s advice. My answer is "No" that we should not ignore its advice. It is up to politicians and political parties decide. That is where the public sees the biggest problem. It does not seem to be advice, but orders. There is a fine line and balance, which is what I said back in May.

To answer Senator Carrigy’s question about percentages, I said we should have opened at 50% occupancy in June to get us back to normal. This would have stopped the hotels - I mean no offence to them - poaching all our staff and robbing us. We could have opened and started cooking. We have not done this in nearly nine or ten months at this stage. If we had done that, we would probably have seen what we are seeing today, which is no spike or surge in the numbers since four or five weeks of hospitality being reopened.

I thank Mr. Brendan McGowan. He had huge support for the plan earlier on in the year. Again, it highlighted everything we are saying today. I also agree with him about starting off with a potential pass coming in and people being vaccinated. We were so desperate in June to get back open and we could see what we needed. At this stage, we need to do whatever it takes. It is going to upset certain people, of course. I would find it difficult to ask people if they are vaccinated but that is just me. However, if means that businesses can open, then that is exactly what we have to do.

On what is coming down the line, we will see huge closures of restaurants and bars and not only that, but the sweet shop across the road depends on me. We are all a package in tourism. That is why I said it is the most important pillar of the economy. Tourists will not come to Killarney if they can only stay in a hotel and walk around a national park, stunning though it is. They want to experience a pint, go to the local restaurant and go into a shop to buy an Aran jumper, or whatever it is they want. If my restaurant goes, then the next business goes and the next one after that.

I am lucky. As the committee can probably tell, I am strong-minded. I can handle most of what is going on. However, over the last couple of months, the people to whom I speak, which is in the thousands, have gone beyond the brink. They have spoken to their bank managers to tell them to stop sending them letters, because they do not have a single cent left, because they have not traded.

What do we do? The committee probably will not like this. We need to open straight away. Is the public confidence there? It is 100% there. How do I know? I have to telephone so many people to cancel their reservations. They have said to me that they will still come in and that they want to support me. I said that I have no problems going against anything, but they will be fined and I cannot have that happening to them. What are we going to do fix this? Nobody wants a subsidy. I would gladly give every cent of my subsidies over the last 16 months back, if we could have stayed open. We knew to close when it was dangerous. As I said, we closed before anybody told us to do so because that is what hospitality does; it takes care of the customers who come into our restaurants. The committee might not like to hear this, but it might be lump sum pay-off to keep businesses afloat. The committee might not like to hear also that there might need to be a tax amnesty, because that is how bad this is. I am not making this up.

Over the coming months we will see closure after closure, particularly in rural areas. I cannot see Dublin city getting back any time soon. I think the city will be wiped out as well. The problem is that when we open up all these problems will come up. Then we will have bills, rents and landlords to pay. That is when we will see issues.

I would ask committee members to please go back to all their political parties and leaders to tell them that NPHET advises, but that they must decide. We cannot have Covid-19 as the only game in town here. People are sick, dying, stressed, and mental health has gone off the walls. We must look at everything together and take an entire industry at face value and say that we cannot allow 200,000 people in hospitality to sink. It feels as though we literally have a knee on our neck at the moment. I still have no idea when I will be able to open up my business.

I thank Mr. Treyvaud for his passionate plea to this committee. I can assure him that his views and thoughts will be reflected to all party leaders. We will all have our parliamentary party meetings during the week. We will feed this into the report in respect of the hospitality sector. Mr. Treyvaud’s views come at a really good time in terms of where we are at with that. I appreciate him taking the time. We feel for him but, as he said, that is not enough and we need to see actions.

I thank colleagues for participating in a meaningful way. That concludes our business for the day.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.35 p.m. sine die.