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Impatience growing as homeware shops demand answers on when they can open

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Our man Conor Feehan has his temperature taken at the EZ Living Furniture Store in Tallaght. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Our man Conor Feehan has his temperature taken at the EZ Living Furniture Store in Tallaght. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Our man Conor Feehan has his temperature taken at the EZ Living Furniture Store in Tallaght. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Homeware stores are on a collision course with the Government over a lack of clarity about when they will be able to open their doors to the public.

They had initially been told they would be able to reopen last week along with hardware stores but were excluded from phase one of the easing of restrictions at the last minute.

Some are now organising private shopping appointments under strict conditions in order to trade, while others have remained shut while awaiting clarity.

With impatience growing one leading furniture retailer, Greg Kelly of Des Kelly Interiors, has written to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, senior ministers and Opposition TDs, asking if trading restrictions are being enforced and by whom.

"We have loyal long-standing employees who desperately want to get back to work but who have accepted the fact that it is not advisable just now on account of public health and safety," said Mr Kelly.

"The problem is when they see over a dozen competitor stores throwing open their doors and welcoming in customers while they remain unemployed, and the business they work for is being undermined by this lack of enforcement. Is it one rule for some and a different rule for others?

"We primarily sell flooring, beds, furniture and accessories, and had fully prepared for reopening in phase one on May 18 in line with the indications coming from the public-health experts."

When 'homewares' were specifically excluded from phase one opening, the company complied with what appeared to be a clear directive not to open, Mr Kelly said.

The company made numerous enquiries to An Garda Siochana, local councillors and the HSE.

Enforcement

Mr Kelly said he had differing answers as to whether or not the business can re-open.

"We need clarity and we need enforcement of whatever protocols are agreed," Mr Kelly said.

His business remains closed but is taking bookings for private appointments with bedding and flooring specialists. It also has flooring estimators on the road bringing showrooms to homes.

Another well-known furniture chain is selling stock to the public through private shopping appointments after it was banned from opening.

EZ Living Furniture, a family-owned business, says it took the decision to offer one-on-one appointments because of a lack of clarity on when homeware stores can reopen according to the Government's roadmap to recovery.

One of its directors, Liam Dilleen, said it had sought advice from Retail Excellence Ireland and had been told homeware stores would be able to open last Monday.

But the Government's last-minute change caused massive confusion.

"We were told we would be able to reopen on May 18 and we were gearing up for that," said Mr Dilleen.

"We brought our staff back on and invested in a lot of PPE and equipment to ensure the safety of customers and staff.

"We were also aware that some customers might be nervous about shopping with other people, so we had set aside time in the mornings and evenings when a customer could book a private shopping slot.

"We had many bookings, and then when we were told we couldn't open we had to decide what to do.

"We extended the private bookings and are operating on that basis."

Asked if the system is in contravention of the "road map to recovery", Mr Dilleen said the stores are not open to the public in a way that anyone can walk in.

He has sought further clarity on when homeware stores can open but has been left with no definitive answer.

"If we are in a grey area it is because we have been forced into a grey area," he said.

EZ Living Furniture chief executive Kevin O'Neill said they were still uncertain if homeware stores will reopen in phase two or phase three.

Safer

"We are open to discussion with anybody on this, it needs to be sorted out and clearer direction given," he said. "We have followed every guideline and don't know how we could be any safer," he said.

The company employs 300 people and has 14 stores nationwide.

When a customer organises an appointment with EZ Living Furniture they are first asked a series of questions in relation to their health and possible exposure to Covid-19.

When they arrive at the shop they are met by a sales assistant in PPE, their temperature is taken and they are asked to sanitise their hands and keep a two-metre distance from the salesperson.

The door is closed, so nobody else can come in, and gloves and a facemask are offered to the customer but are not mandatory.

The customer's details are kept for two weeks in case they are required for contact tracing.

The sales assistant then brings the customer to the items of furniture they wish to see and they are able to sit on and touch them to assess their comfort and suitability.

Large disposable tissue sheets are placed on any pillows touched, and all the furniture examined by the customer is sprayed with a disinfectant after they have left.

At the checkout area there are Perspex screens and more hand gel, and transactions are done by card payment.

The Herald asked the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation for clarity on when homeware stores could reopen.

The roadmap is a "living document" which can change depending on infection numbers, it said.

A department spokesman said businesses should review the roadmap carefully and carry out a detailed assessment of their activities with regard to the continuing public health measures.

"Businesses should, based on their assessment, identify which category in which phase of reopening they will be in a position to reopen safely and in line with the continued public health measures," he said.

"It is not necessary for businesses to seek official authorisation to reopen."