Fears that the Government will impose a county-wide lockdown on Galway have, throughout this week, hardened to a resigned certainty, after hundreds of students congregated in the Spanish Arch area in defiance of public health guidelines and social distancing requirements.
However, in the wake of public anger over these incidents, the Mayor of Galway, Mike Cubbard, said now is the time for the city to "act and prevent rather than react and blame" by pursuing "practical ideas and solutions" to ensure there is no repeat of Monday's events.
While describing the massive student gatherings at the Spanish Arch, Claddagh basin, Woodquay, and Shop Street areas as "a slap in the face" to all those who are abiding by public health guidelines, he rejected calls for the Defence Forces to be called onto the city's streets, or for water cannons to be used to disperse crowds, pointing out that such actions "will just drive the issue indoors" or into the suburbs of the city. "My main concern now, going forward, is how we prevent this from occurring again," he said.
The Galway City Council has also called for "empathy and solidarity", and appealed to the public to "continue to do all we can to protect our families, friends and neighbours", while the NUIG Students Union has appealed to students to "keep your gatherings small, keep yourself and your families safe, and keep your distance", adding, "We all have a part to play in limiting the spread of the virus."
'We are at a critical space in Galway with more confirmed cases of Covid-19 this past week than in the three months of June to August. Now, more than ever, we all must play a part'
Deputy Mayor, and Independent city councillor, Colette Connolly, struck a harder note, saying residents and businesses were "deeply traumatised" by Monday's events.
"There is fear another lockdown will cause businesses to close and subsequent job losses," she said. "The selfish, egotistical behaviour of these young people must be challenged and a clear message given that they are not above the law."
The Cathaoirleach of Galway County Council, Cllr James Charity, said Monday's incidents were "very disappointing". He added: "We've been trying to enforce the message that steps need to be taken locally to reduce social contacts and assist in preventing a potential move to Level 3 restrictions. This is crucial as we all collectively fight Covid-19 and act in the best interests of society and our county."
Hundreds gather at Spanish Arch
On Monday night, hundreds of young people (numbers vary between 300 and 1,000 ), mostly students, gathered at various locations across the city centre to celebrate Freshers Week. Gardaí had to try and disperse the crowds from those locations as well as from the Engineering Building on the NUI Galway campus, locations in Ballybane and Renmore, and at least a dozen house parties throughout the city.
Mayor Cubbard, said he was "very disappointed and concerned" by the behaviour of the young people, and was "horrified by the treatment of residents in Claddagh and the canal area whose gardens effectively became a public urinal". He also raised the issue of damage to goalposts belonging to West United in South Park. "This is criminal damage and must be addressed," he said.
'Individually and collectively we must continue to do all we can to protect our families, friends and neighbours'
He did point out that Monday's behaviour is not representative of the entire student body. "I have spoken to some students who are horrified that this group has portrayed Galway in such a negative light," he said.
Nonetheless the incidents were a serious breach of public health guidelines, and the gravity of the situation was underlined by Mayor Cubbard's decision to call an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss the matter and how any re-occurrence can be prevented.
"We are at a critical space in Galway with more confirmed cases of Covid-19 this past week than in the three months of June to August. Now, more than ever, we all must play a part," he said.
The meeting was attended by Mayor Cubbard; Tony Canavan, chief executive, HSE Saolta Group; Superintendent Damian Flanagan, Galway Garda Station; President of NUI Galway, Prof Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh; President of GMIT, Dr Orla Flynn; and the presidents of the students unions of NUIG and GMIT, Pádraic Toomey and Victor O’Loughlin.
The meeting condemned the events as "completely unacceptable" and appealed to the public to "limit their social interactions, maintain social distancing, wear face masks where appropriate such as in shops and on public transport, and not gather in groups larger than outlined in the public health advice. Individually and collectively we must continue to do all we can to protect our families, friends and neighbours."
Criticism of universities
NUI Galway described Monday’s events as “deplorable” and said it had “repeatedly appealed to the better judgment of our students and reminded them of their responsibilities”.
Both GMIT and NUIG have carried out work to facilitate a safe return to campus. Both also have disciplinary measures in relation to on- and off-campus behaviour, and both will work with the gardai on enforcement measures.
However, NUIG authorities have come in for criticism, having initially been reluctant to allow all classes to go ahead online - resulting in students needing to come to Galway.
Last week the university agreed to provide refunds to students who no longer wished to take up spaces in on-campus student accommodation for 2020/21. Many students booked accommodation at the Corrib Village and Goldcrest developments on the basis they were told by the university they would have on-campus teaching hours this semester.
According to the NUIG Students' Union, "the students subsequently discovered they would have no teaching time or very limited hours which did not justify their outlay on the accommodation."
SU welfare officer, Róisín Nic Lochlainn, is now calling on other student accommodation providers and landlords in Galway will follow the NUIG’s lead and provide refunds to students who no longer need accommodation.
Mayor Cubbard believes this is a relevant issue to the student gatherings that took place on Monday.
"I seriously believe the fact some students have paid full rent, up front, is an attraction for them to come to Galway," he said. "With lectures now online, I believe the Minister needs to look at introducing a system of rebate to students who paid rental fees up front but got very late notice of lectures going online. If we are encouraging people to restrict their movements this is an obvious starting point in my view."