About 600 drink-only bars in Northern Ireland can reopen their doors from Wednesday for the first time since March.
It had previously been the case that pubs could only sell alcohol if they also served food or if customers were outside.
The reopening date for pubs had been pushed back twice due to a rising number of coronavirus cases.
However, the executive could impose an earlier closing time.
From Thursday in England and Wales, pubs, bars and restaurants must close at 22:00 BST.
This also takes effect in Scotland from Friday, while in the Republic of Ireland, drink-only pubs have a 23:30 curfew.
The executive’s chief scientific adviser, Prof Ian Young, said that the evidence showed that most cases of the virus are being acquired in households “or through informal interactions between households” rather than in settings such as shops and restaurants.
“There is some risk associated with virus transmission in pubs – that’s unavoidable – there will be some very strict mitigations in place which the sector will have to follow and I hope strong enforcement for anyone who is not following those mitigations,” he told Good Morning Ulster.
“A curfew would have some effect in terms of reducing transmission, we have to think very carefully about the economic consequences of that.
“In all of this the executive have to weigh up economic and social consequences against health consequences when considering the best decision to make.”
He added: “We have to at least be aware of what closing hours might be in the Republic of Ireland, because we don’t want to encourage unnecessary movements across the border which will again just give a risk of brining the virus both ways.”
Hospitality industry representatives have said further restrictions may mean that many businesses will no longer be viable.
Both Hospitality Ulster and the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation (NIHF) have called for the executive to align its policy on closing times with the Republic of Ireland.
NIHF said staggered bookings and additional cleaning time means many businesses may struggle to survive if they have to shut early.
Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said “to avoid confusion and for parity” there should be the same rule across the border.
“The past six months have been incredibly challenging for those in the hospitality sector and it seems that it is going to get even more challenging,” he added.
Michael Cafolla, from the Institute of Hospitality NI, said they would be “very disappointed” by a 22:00 curfew.
“I think we need to be aligned with the Republic and their 23:30 closing time because of the proximity with the border towns first of all,” he said.
“But also the 22:00 closing will make many of our businesses not viable.”
What will pubs have to do?
The executive has agreed that the mandatory requirements for pubs opening will include:
- Table service only – no standing and no bar service
- Dancing will be banned in hospitality venues
- A maximum of six people from any number of households can be seated at a table. Children under 12 will not be included in the total
- More than six people will be permitted if they all belong to a single household
- The venue will be required to collect customer details to assist with contact tracing
- Face coverings should be worn to enter and leave the venue and for movement inside. They are not required once seated.
Covid-19 restrictions were extended to all of Northern Ireland from 18:00 BST on Tuesday, and the Northern Ireland Executive is to meet on Thursday to consider further measures.
On Tuesday night, the first and deputy first ministers gave a televised address explaining why the coronavirus rules were being tightened in NI.
First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill called for a “big push” to curb the rising number of Covid-19 cases.
Mrs Foster said the tougher restrictions across NI did not represent a second lockdown but should act as a wake-up call.
She used the address to reassure people that although visits to each other’s homes have been severely curtailed – it was still possible to include elderly relatives in your household.
Presenting a united front
The debate is always around that balancing act between ensuring the health of people on the ground and trying to protect the economy that has been severely damaged over the course of the past six months.
I think, at the end of the day, there was a sense that this was the right thing to do.
Present a united front to say if people do not wake up to what is happening now, if they do not change their behaviour, then we will be looking at a very different scenario come the middle of October.
Michelle O’Neill used that timespan.
She did talk about changes within two to three weeks, because you do get the sense that come that date that we may well be returning to what everyone is talking about – this circuit breaker, this limited form of lockdown to try and address the growing number of cases.
Ms O’Neill said people could not afford to let their guard down and appealed to the public to stick to the rules.
“We are asking for your continued patience so that we prevent more people becoming severely ill, take the pressure off our health service, and all those that care for us,” she said.
“We are sounding the alarm bells loud and clear throughout our society – and asking you to go back to basics.”
The new rules specify there will be no mixing of households indoors with the following exceptions:
- Bubbling with one other household
- A limit of six people from no more than two households, excluding children aged 12 or under, can gather in a private garden
- Caring responsibilities including childcare
- Essential maintenance
- Supported living arrangements
- Visits required for legal or medical purposes
- Marriage or civil partnerships where one partner is terminally ill