Ireland to lift COVID-19 curbs ahead of many European countries

FILE PHOTO: An empty shopping street is seen amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dublin, Ireland, November 22, 2020. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland will allow shops, restaurants, gyms and pubs serving food to reopen next week, and permit travel between counties from Dec. 18, to facilitate a "different but special" Christmas, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said on Friday.

Ireland became one of first European countries to reimpose tough COVID-19 constraints six weeks ago when the government shut non-essential retail and limited pubs and restaurants to takeaway service under its highest level of restrictions.

From Tuesday, however, the economy will begin to be one of the most open across Europe after a sharp cut in the 14-day incidence rate per 100,000 people to below 100, behind only Finland and Iceland across the continent.

"We now have the opportunity to enjoy a different, but special Christmas. We can be with our loved ones and remember those we've lost. We will come through this together," Martin said in a televised address.

Neighbouring England will also exit a national lockdown next week but large parts of the country must live under the toughest category of COVID-19 curbs, while France will only start a phased unwinding from Dec. 15 and Germany will likely keep bars and restaurants closed until January.

Martin made his announcement the day the entire hospitality sector and non-essential retail in British-run Northern Ireland closed for two weeks, potentially leading to a rush of cross-border Christmas shopping.

Pubs that just serve drinks will remain shut across Ireland, meaning such venues in Dublin will have pulled their last pint of 2020 in March. Non-food pubs in other counties were briefly allowed to open in September.

"I lay awake last night and the thoughts of not trading this Christmas, and maybe not until next summer. I feel demoralised, dazed by it all," Willie Aherne, owner of Dublin's Palace Bar told broadcaster Virgin Media News.

People can welcome up to two other households into their homes between Dec. 18 and Jan. 6.

Health officials credited a mid-October ban on household visits for the sharp fall in infections, although cases have not fallen to the 100 per day officials targeted to keep them low for a sustained period. Ireland reported 206 cases on Friday.

The adaptation by many shuttered stores to takeaway or click-and-collect services limited the economic damage over the last six weeks with data on Friday showing retail sales fell by just 0.7% month-on-month in October and were up 8.1% year-on-year.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin and Graham Fahy; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Toby Chopra)

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