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Ireland has a new coronavirus fear: Americans on vacation

With little to no quarantine enforcement on visitors, some Irish business owners say they have had to take matters into their own hands.
Image: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Galway
People line up to enter an amusement park in Galway. Despite relying heavily on summer travel, many Irish businesses are urging Americans not to come to the country.Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters

OMAGH, Northern Ireland — Millions of Americans consider Ireland a home away from home. But as the number of coronavirus cases in the United States surges, many Irish businesses say they have been forced to turn away some of their most lucrative customers — vacationing Americans.

Most visitors to Ireland, including those from the U.S., have to fill out a COVID-19 Passenger Locator Form that includes their contact details while in the country and where they will be staying.

They also are required to self-quarantine for 14 days, staying indoors and avoiding contact with other people as much as possible. But there are few if any checks on whether visitors actually comply with the requirement. And for many in Ireland, visitors from the U.S. seem to pose a particularly serious threat.

COVID-19 cases have surpassed 5 million in the U.S., with several states seeing an uptick in the last 14 days.

In Florida, for example, where flights are still departing for Ireland, the coronavirus-related death rate is 6 per 100,000 cases — 30 times higher than the current rate in Ireland over the past two weeks, which is 0.2.

Ireland is one of only a few European Union countries still allowing Americans to visit at all. But, with little to no quarantine enforcement on visitors, some Irish business owners say they have had to take matters into their own hands. Across social media, many have shared similar stories of fending off American tourists who should be self-isolating but are not.

A woman knits at Salthill beach amid the coronavirus outbreak in Galway, Ireland on Aug. 3. Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters

JP McMahon, a Galway-based chef and restaurateur, says “it’s absolute madness” that flights are still arriving in Ireland from badly hit areas of the United States, such as Texas.

He said he has had to ask a new question on his booking system: Have customers traveled abroad or returned to Ireland in the last two weeks? If they have, his staff calls to let them know they cannot come to the restaurant.

But McMahon can’t check everyone — and ultimately he has to rely on people’s word.

“We're already running at 50 percent below usual,” he said. “So we just don't have the resources to stop every single person and to try and deal with them in a way where you would if you went through passport control in an airport.”

Most of the E.U. has extended its travel ban on Americans, leaving just Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and North Macedonia — none of them considered tourism hotspots — as last-minute alternatives to Ireland for Americans set on visiting the Continent this summer.

More than 2 million tourists from the U.S. and Canada visit Ireland every year — a $2 billion shot in the arm for a tourism industry that supports the jobs of 325,000 people. And despite a sharp fall in those numbers during the pandemic, the Irish government says as many as 250 Americans are still arriving in Ireland every day.

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The issue has created a dilemma for business owners who rely heavily on American customers but feel compelled to turn them away.

Janet Cavanagh, the owner of E-whizz, a bike touring company in the west of the Irish Republic, says 90 percent of her guided tour business is from the U.S. and Canada. But she felt she had no choice but to cancel an American couple’s tour.

“I asked them if they had done their 14 days isolation, as per the Irish government regulations, they said they had not,” Cavanagh said. "They didn't realize that it was mandatory. So I wasn't really willing to do a tour with them if they just landed into Ireland off a flight from the States.”

The Irish government says arrangements are being made for “a more robust system of follow-up checks to ensure that those entering the country are staying where they said they would stay per the form.”

Caitlin Potts, 29, an SEO content writer from Columbus, Ohio, studied in Northern Ireland in 2012. She planned to go on a “trip of a lifetime” with her parents to Ireland and Scotland this summer.

“This plan basically has been in the works for years now because they wanted to see where I traveled, things like that,” Potts said. “So, a lot of this was going to be retracing my steps and, you know, some new things along the way.”

But when it seemed clear that COVID-19 wasn’t going away any time soon, and with her parents in their 60s, Potts said he felt it was “better to be safe than sorry” and decided to cancel the trip.

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Kevin Kelly, the business development director for the Boston-based tour operator Crystal Travel & Tours, said sending clients like Potts to Ireland and Britain just wasn’t an option.

“We didn't want anyone going abroad with any trepidation,” Kelly said. “We made every effort that we could to provide cash refunds, where we were able to do so to our clients that did not want to travel and were reluctant to postpone.”

Despite relying heavily on summer travel as a business, Kelly says visiting Ireland is not something he would suggest for Americans right now.

“We would probably advise against it, you know, not just the fact that the quarantine is there, but it's also when you get there, there's nothing really much to do,” he said. “I mean, even the visitor attractions and the sightseeing opportunities are limited.”