By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) -Ireland will press ahead with plans to reopen all retail stores, personal services and non-residential construction in May, with hotels, restaurants and bars to follow sooner than expected in early June, the government said on Thursday.
The government committed a month ago to reopening all shops for the first time this year in May and hotels in June if it could avoid a fourth wave of COVID-19 and speed up its vaccine programme - criteria that it has met.
"As disruptive, as lonely, as frustrating and as sad as the last year has been, we are getting through it and a degree of normality is returning. ... Hope is returning," Prime Minister Micheál Martin said in a televised address.
Under the plan, hotels will open their doors again on June 2, with restaurants and pubs - not mentioned a month ago - allowed to serve guests outdoors from June 7.
A decision on indoor hospitality and mass gatherings is to be made at the end of June, while workers are unlikely to return to offices before September.
Ireland has one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in Europe but is opting for a slower reopening of its economy than most of its European peers after a relaxation of measures in December triggered a huge spike in cases.
Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told parliament that in May alone, as many as 15,000 business could reopen with up to 200,000 people being offered their jobs back.
The number of people claiming temporary coronavirus-related jobless benefits stood at 403,000 this week, up from a pandemic low of 206,000 last September. Including those claiming regular jobless benefits, Ireland's unemployment rate stood at 24.2% at the end of March.
Ireland has also put in place the European Union's toughest restrictions on international travel and Varadkar said a plan for a phased return to international travel this summer should be agreed by the end of May.
Welcoming the reopening plan, the incoming chief executive of Ireland's largest hotel operator told Reuters that the Dalata Hotel Group expects very strong occupancy levels outside Dublin this summer and a recovery in the capital from September with the hoped-for return of international travel.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Cooney)