We need to make Dublin’s outdoor offerings winter friendly

I’ve just entered the ‘virtual’ Dublin Marathon 2020.

It was a random decision, perpetuated by pandemic induced boredom. I won’t be running, just walking, but still, it’s an epic endeavour.

Obviously this year’s marathon will be without fans, sponsors handing out energy drinks, hugs, medics, music, fanfare, camaraderie, collective emotion and celebratory pints in the pub.

‘Pandemic 2 – Return of the Bat’ means hanging out in bars, clubs, football matches and mosh pits is over for the next six months at least, so I’ve settled for a sporty alternative.

Sadly though, beyond wandering around Dublin like a weirdo, outdoor Ireland in winter offers few amenities and services.

In Dublin, there are barely any public toilets, which the 12,000 odd participants of the marathon will be made all too aware of on October 24th. There are also no public beer gardens, no street theatre and a distinct lack of community climate action grants to create something big and immersive.

“But there’s a pandemic on. Everyone has to be locked indoors, while we close airports and ports and throw away the key”, some suggest.

Yes, but that won’t work. People will just go to each other’s houses instead and that will be impossible to control. Also we have our mental health to consider.

All summer we heard that Dublin was being left behind in the great overpriced ‘staycation’ scam, but what on earth should people do in Dublin or other big cities during the upcoming winter of discontent?

We need some imagination. Before Covid-19 came along, there was talk of a night Czar in Dublin to invigorate the city’s disappearing nightlife. Is there such a person to make the outdoors a little more enticing and safe?

I’ve had the pleasure of leaving Ireland since Covid-19 started – all while maintaining utmost safety, but I found that in Germany and the Alpine nations particularly, life is still going on within the strict parameters created by the virus.

In Munich, beer gardens are open for the public and you can bring your own food and drink. The tables are far apart and the large umbrellas above have heaters. It’s all very safe and free to use. Would there be something hugely wrong in turning parts of Stephens Green or the Iveagh Gardens or other city parks into some kind of outdoor winter meeting points with pop up restaurants?

Currently restaurants in Ireland are allowed to seat 15 people outside. A report commissioned by the Drinks Industry Group found that 65 percent of jobs in service industry venues could be lost – almost 114,000 people could be out of work. The Arts sector has been hit with sledgehammer with promoters, DJs and artists out of work. You would think that maybe there could be a collaboration for the sake of survival. The Arts got an extra €50 million in the budget, it’s not enough to feed everyone. We have empty parks and pedestrianised zones, just waiting to be used. What about some art on walls? Too artsy?

“This is Ireland. It’s cold and dark at 4pm. It rains constantly, and we won’t get the insurance”, I hear.

It’s like we’re aliens or something. “We can’t have that kind of thing here”. “We’re going to trash it. We’re a bunch of pissheads with no regard for public spaces. We’ll all get the Covid”, is generally the reaction to anything that involves thinking more broadly.

It’s deeply offensive and infantiisling. Why not treat people like adults? Give them a little something of what they want, and they may surprise you. Sure we have vandals here, but cameras and suitable punishment could help.

I’m aware that Irish people bite your head off if you suggest how things are done successfully elsewhere, but why can’t we at least have some of the services our European neighbours offer their citizens for free? At time of writing this piece, a person is three times as likely to catch the virus in Ireland than in Germany so they may be onto something. Also our winters are milder than in Europe.

But entertainment and job creation is just one thing. If this crisis has taught us anything, it’s that we should take nature seriously. Is there not a way we can incorporate nature and employment? Surely planting native trees isn’t a dangerous superspreader activity? My daughter, who is sick to the front teeth of hiking with me, would love some alternatives.

I’m delighted that trick or treating and overpriced Christmas grottos are cancelled (I’m the Grinch) but it would be great to do something else climate friendly for kids – with safety in mind of course.

This isn’t just about creating a mid-pandemic outdoor cafe culture for the bourgeoisie, it’s a matter of public mental and physical health. With no solution other than staying indoors with a paper bag over your head, getting supplies delivered to the door, we will hit a wall.

We need some imagination to keep our citizens safe and well, while saving the private sector and jobs.

People just about managed to get through the summer, but the cracks are starting to show. This winter will be long, we may as well make it bearable.