The government is under fire for not enforcing the rule that people arriving self-isolate for 14 days. With the pandemic still raging in the United States, concern has focused on Americans.
Janet Cavanagh, whose electric bike tour company offers a guided glimpse of western Ireland's windswept landscape, saw her business come to a swift halt — along with nearly everything else — as the coronavirus pandemic forced the country into lockdown.
She recently reopened her doors, eager to restart business and make up for lost time as restrictions eased.
But she and a number of other business owners say that Ireland faces a new and unexpected threat: Tourists, particularly American ones, who flout Ireland's quarantine rule.
With the pandemic still raging unabated in much of the United States, unlike in Europe, Americans are among those most likely to be infected. They aren't the only tourists ignoring the requirement that people arriving in Ireland isolate themselves for 14 days, but most of the public complaints involve Americans.
Last weekend, Cavanagh cancelled a guided tour for two people who had just arrived from the United States and didn't think Ireland's travel quarantine applied to them. She said she felt the responsibility to turn them away for the safety of her staff and community.
"You don't want to be responsible for endangering anybody here, because you have to live here," she said, adding that it was simply not worth the risk.
Simon Haden, the owner of Gregans Castle Hotel in County Clare, in the west of Ireland, said he recently received a call from Americans who wanted to book a reservation in his restaurant soon after arriving, and who had no plans to quarantine. He explained the situation to them, and turned them away.
In recent days, dozens of Irish businesses — tour operators, restaurateurs and pub owners — have posted on social media similar stories about fending off customers who had just landed in the country but were ignoring directions to self-isolate. A national radio station interviewed Americans arriving at Dublin airport, some of whom said they had no plans to quarantine.
That has ignited a national conversation about whether the government, which does not monitor compliance with the isolation order or penalise violators, should start enforcing it.
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Many people in Ireland, say the government should be tougher about preventing travellers from bringing the virus into the country, but the government has tried to tamp down that concern. Prime Minister Micheal Martin told the Parliament on Tuesday that while there has been much conversation about American tourists, "the numbers are quite low coming in from the US."
Simon Coveney, the foreign affairs minister, acknowledged on Monday that there was evidence of visitors who had ignored quarantine laws in the country. But he said just 200 to 250 people a day had arrived in Ireland from the United States, most of whom he described as "Irish people coming home."
"We need to put this in perspective," he said, but he added that "people should not be coming to Ireland if they can't restrict their movement."
The issue has created a painful paradox for suffering business owners who rely heavily on American customers but feel compelled to turn them away. Visitors from the United States are usually the largest source of tourism revenue on the island of Ireland — both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom — accounting for 28% of foreign spending in 2018, according to Tourism Ireland.
"The first thing I want to see is American guests return," Haden said. "But not if it's going to put the health and safety of our guests, our staff, the community under threat after the sacrifices we've made."
Those sacrifices included a stringent, monthslong lockdown that drove down the rate of new infections from almost 1,000 a day in mid-April to just 20 per day. Overall, Ireland has had more than 25,000 confirmed cases and 1,746 deaths.
Ireland's pubs, restaurants and hotels were finally allowed to reopen on June 29, but under tight regulations that require social distancing and limit the number of patrons at a given time. So just as people in Ireland have begun to move more freely, many of them fear losing the gains they have made.
JP McMahon, a well-known, Michelin-starred chef, wrote on Twitter on Saturday night that a group of people from Texas dined at one of his restaurants in Galway, and while he was unclear if they had undertaken a two-week quarantine, staff were "very uncomfortable."
"This is not just an American problem," he said in an interview. "We had Germans in today in our cafe who arrived yesterday, who felt that because their country had a low rate of infection it was OK." He also worries that Irish people returning from abroad will neglect quarantine.
McMahon has taken matters into his own hands, saying on Sunday, that all international visitors booking into his restaurants would be required to prove their entry date into the country.
At the height of the coronavirus crisis in Europe, Ireland, a European Union member, did not adopt the bloc's blanket ban on nonessential travelers from outside it, or the kind of border controls erected by many European countries. Though most of the EU has resumed allowing in some foreign visitors, it has continued to bar most people from the United States.
The Irish government merely advises against nonessential travel to the country, but does not prohibit it, a policy set to be reviewed on July 20.
Everyone arriving from abroad — visitors, residents and citizens alike — is told to quarantine for 14 days, and must complete a form stating where they will be staying during that time.
There are currently no fines for breaking quarantine, but a traveler could face a fine of up to 2,500 euros ($4,324) or imprisonment for up to six months, for not completing the form upon arrival or providing false or misleading information on it.
Sam McConkey, an associate professor and head of the department of international health and tropical medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, called for a mandatory enforced quarantine to be put in place. Speaking to the national broadcaster RTE, he said it was the only viable option.
Some opposition politicians have also called for more extreme measures, including Duncan Smith, the transport spokesman for the Labour party, who on Monday said he wanted to suspend flights from the United States and other areas considered "Covid-19 hot spots" until mandatory testing could be put in place at Irish airports.
Leo Varadkar, the former prime minister who guided the country through the first wave of the pandemic and now serves as the deputy head of government, said a mandatory quarantine "is not possible in Ireland." Speaking to RTE on Tuesday, he cited legal concerns and pointed to outbreaks at Australia's quarantine hotels as evidence against such measures.
Cavanagh, who owns E-Whizz bikes in Clare, said in a typical year, around 90 per cent of her business would come from the United States. But for now, she has put the thought of profit aside for the sake of safety, urging international travelers to self-isolate for the full two weeks.
"So unless you have that kind of time to play with, we'd rather you didn't come because we don't want you to be mixing around in the community," she said.
Written by: Megan Specia
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