WATCH: Northern Ireland's tourism and hospitality sector reopens for business

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Merchant Hotel

By Q Radio News and Rebecca Black, PA

Hotels and eateries have been declared open for business following the coronavirus lockdown.

From today, hotels, restaurants, cafes, coffee shops, pubs, bars, museums and galleries in Northern Ireland will be able to welcome customers back while abiding by social-distancing rules.

Indoor pubs and bars will have to primarily function as restaurants and offer substantial meals with table service.

The food prerequisite does not apply to alcohol being served outside in beer gardens, though table service is again compulsory.

One of those reopening many of its stores today if the cafe chain Bob and Berts.

Q Radio has been speaking to Jordan Graham from the group:

Economy Minister Diane Dodds hailed the reopening of the sector as a hugely positive step forward as she visited a number of establishments on Friday.

"Businesses in this sector are a cornerstone of the Northern Ireland economy, employing around 65,000 people and generating in the region of £1 billion in revenue each year," she said.

"But these businesses also represent something more. They are the places people go to socialise, relax and enjoy themselves.

"We can so easily take this for granted but after it has not been available for three months, I believe people will be very pleased to once again have the opportunity to visit cafes, hotels, pubs, restaurants and visitor attractions."

Mrs Dodds added: "Northern Ireland is world-renowned for its tourism and hospitality offering. While this year we may not welcome as many outside visitors here as we normally would during the summer, I am confident that businesses in the sector will see a great many local customers in the coming weeks and months and will deliver the quality offering that they are so well known for.

"It remains vital that everyone - business owners, staff and customers - takes the appropriate precautions. The recent relaxation of social distancing rules by the Executive will have a direct positive impact on tourism and hospitality businesses and also on the people using them, but we must not be complacent.

"So, alongside social distancing, please remember to continue practising good hand and respiratory hygiene while using our hotels, cafes, pubs, restaurants and tourist attractions so that everyone can enjoy them safely."

The reopening has also been welcomed by Diane Dodds' DUP colleague, Carla Lockhart MP.

However, some in the hospitality sector remain nervous about reopening. 

Lee Murphy owns the bar Love and Death in Belfast. Strict social distancing rules mean only 10 people will be allowed in the cocktail bar at a time.

Social distancing rules are also affecting the Head O The Road pub near Portadown.

Normally, they would be able to accomodate 150 customers. Now, they can only seat 70 customers.

With strict hygiene rules still in place, hotel owners across Northern Ireland have been preparing safety measures for months to make sure they were ready to open today.

In the Stormont Hotel opening its doors today, and hand sanitiser pumps have been installed throughout with machines being used to disinfect rooms when guests check out. 

General manager Andy McNeil says regular deep cleans will also take place the eating area and tables will be thoroughly wiped down between sittings.

Another hotel reopening today is the Seagoe Hotel in Portadown.

Q Radio has been speaking to one of its owners, Darren Gilbert.

Colin Neill, from Hospitality Ulster who represent many in sector, had long campaigned for today's reopening date.

He says that today is certainly a good day for industry, however it still faces large challenges:

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd also sounded a note of caution ahead of the reopenings, warning that the pandemic is not yet over.

"We understand that many people will want to take advantage of this opportunity as soon as possible, especially after having been unable to do so for so long," he said.

"Whilst we of course understand that people will want to go out and have a good time and enjoy themselves, we must remember that coronavirus is still a serious risk to health.

"The pandemic is not over. If you're planning to go out this weekend to your local pub when they reopen, our plea is simple - be sensible."

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