Shutting public spaces may create more risk to public health, says Minister

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Shutting down public spaces to prevent the repeat of scenes of large crowds drinking outside at the weekend could put public health further at risk, the Government Chief Whip has said.

Certain streets in Dublin city could be closed off in an effort to curb on-street drinking by large crowds, some Garda sources have suggested.

However, Minister of State for Sport and the Gaeltacht Jack Chambers said shutting down public spaces could result in a more “excessive risk” to public health if people moved indoors to private houses.

While he shared “concerns and frustrations” over the “excessive congregations” in some city streets over the weekend, he suggested the reopening from early June of outdoor hospitality “should help”.

It was important to point out that tens of thousands of young people are going out at the weekend to socialise in compliance with the public health rules, he told RTÉ Radio’s Claire Byrne show.

“I think shutting down spaces only displaces the problem to another place,” said Mr Chambers, who is the Government Chief Whip. “It could be to a private dwelling, which could produce an excessive risk.”

The Fianna Fáil Dublin West TD said there was a need to to “be creative with outdoor spaces” including the installation of more bins and more facilities.

 

A Government spokesman said the measures for reopening this summer were still on track, and as at each stage of re-opening so far, progress will be reviewed again by Cabinet ahead of July.

 

“Progress in the vaccination programme has been extremely strong, and we ask people to continue following the public health advice as we re-open society,” the spokesman said. “The return of outdoor hospitality will have guidelines to help ensure a safe return for those businesses.”

‘Enjoy the summer’

Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu has said people cannot be told “not to gather”, but personal responsibility must be taken to observe social distancing.

“We have been advertising for an outdoor summer for quite a while, we’ve been telling people you’ll be able to enjoy the summer,” she told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

“For a lot of people, they don’t have back gardens to be outside in, they can’t invite their friends over when they don’t have that space and we need to provide that space, safe space that people can gather within groups and the recommended guidelines,” she said.

In Dublin, Ms Chu said there had been an increase in rubbish collection, but more toilets were needed and while a tender had gone out, it was still at an “expressions of interest” stage.

“We should have been ready…we need to get this in check,” the Green Party councillor said.

Dr Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, said he was “absolutely shocked” at scenes he witnessed just after 8pm on Saturday around South Great George’s Street, Exchequer Street and South William Street.

He said there were “enormous crowds – like a major open-air party” and feared that progress made to combat the spread of Covid-19 could be undone by such gatherings.

Video footage of large crowds eating and drinking on the streets later emerged on social media, and the area was very heavily littered when teams of Dublin City Council workers arrived for a clean-up operation on Sunday morning.

On Sunday, large crowds again gathered in Dublin city to drink and socialise outdoors during the fine weather.

‘Sick and tired’

Gardaí cleared groups of people drinking along the Grand Canal off on Sunday evening. Portobello Plaza, an open space near the canal, remained closed off by Dublin City Council, following previous gatherings of large crowds and anti-social behaviour.

People were asked to move on from South William Street and the surrounding area. Gardaí stressed people were well behaved and moved on when asked to do so, with four arrests for public order offences.

Garda headquarters said people congregating in Temple Bar and St Stephen’s Green were also dispersed by gardaí, though no arrests were made there. It reminded people the Covid-19 public health guidelines were still in place and urged them “to avoid crowded areas and large gatherings”.

Large crowds of people gathered i in South William street, Dublin at the weekend. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

There were similar scenes in Cork, with 12 people arrested for public order offences following gatherings in the city centre at locations such as Kennedy Quay and Grand Parade, which also necessitated a clean-up operation.

Galway City Council reinstated restrictions at the area known as the Middle Arch – between Wolfe Tone Bridge and Claddagh Quay – at the request of gardaí after large crowds gathered. “This temporary closure under Covid-19 restrictions will be in place for a number of weeks,” the council added.

Mayor of Galway Mike Cubbard said authorities “have to prepare for these crowds gathering, and the reality is that we haven’t.”

“I’m sick and tired of every time there is a weekend of sunshine, people come on the radio, like myself and others, and we are all outraged,” he said.

“Then it is all repeated again the next time there is good weather. Let’s now plan towards events where the weather if going to be fine. We know crowds will gather, let’s try to be safe and control that.”

Lord Mayor of Cork Joe Kavanagh said there had been gatherings of several hundred people in Cork city centre over the weekend.

“That is an issue of serious concern to the gardaí, to the health services and also to the medical people in Cork city,” he said.

It was “disappointing” given recent progress, that people now had to be “fearful” of a potential spike in Covid-19 cases, he said.

“We could end up going backwards in terms of controlling the spread of the virus if we don’t watch ourselves.”

‘Extremely worrying’

Mr Kavanagh said people who are gathering need to take personal responsibility for their actions, as you cannot “have a garda on every street corner 24/7.”

“I’m really worried to be honest. We have a bank holiday weekend coming up and we have a long summer ahead of us. People are going to have to hold firm, take personal responsibility and avoid gathering in large numbers, because it is a potential super spreader event,” he said.

The threat of local lockdowns was “extremely worrying” and if some businesses were forced to close their doors again, they might never open again, he added.

Vincent Jennings, head of the Convenience Stores & Newsagents Association, said he would disagree with any proposed “iron fist” approach to cordon off entire streets to try prevent gatherings.

People needed to be allowed to gather in open public spaces, “in a controlled fashion,” he said.

Shops and convenience stores in the city centres were seeing “very little business” most days, as most offices remained shut. “Rather than saying ‘we’ve got to ban, we’ve got to stop’, find a happy medium,” he said.

Mr Jennings said the reopening of pubs and restaurants’ outdoor service next Monday, should be brought forward to this Friday, to stop crowds gathering on streets over the bank holiday weekend.

Allowing people to socialise in pubs and restaurants’ outdoor spaces would “relieve the pressure” leading to large crowds congregating, he said.




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