Couples, Wedding Vendors Hopeful As They Grapple With New Guidelines In NY
Starting March 15, New York state will expand its capacity limits at weddings to 150 people, with COVID-19 testing required. Pandemic gathering restrictions have roiled many couples, families, and venues for the past year. WAMC’s Jesse King has more on what the stalled wedding industry thinks of the change.
The ballroom at Sixty State Place is normally much, much louder. Built as a bank in 1903, the building now operates as an exquisite venue for downtown Albany weddings. In normal times, a steady stream of wedding parties are seen posing for photos at the nearby State Capitol, and they can find similar splendor in the bank’s marble walls and painted ceiling. Joseph Ruggiero is president of Ruggiero Hospitality at Sixty State Place.
“We do everything in-house. Our wedding packages are very inclusive, they include valet parking, wedding cake, flowers on the tables, at least [a] five-hour open bar. [The bridal party] gets use of the bridal suite, there’s a room downstairs for the groomsmen," says Ruggiero.
When asked about the rooms' use as of late, he shakes his head, "We haven’t been busy at all. One event since last March. People don’t want to do the 50-person weddings."
Truth be told, most grand-scale venues don’t want to do 50-person weddings either, as they cost more than they bring in. And so for the past year, Sixty State Place has sat quiet and empty, like most of the industry.
Uptown, Waldorf Tuxedo Company owner Matthew Wagner says the store has basically been closed all year, as proms, graduations, and galas disappeared as well. The family business has been around since 1936, but lately Wagner is weighing whether to keep going.
“I lost $170,000 in income last year," says Wagner. "I’m hoping that I can stay in business, with my 3,500 in-stock tuxedos that are getting dust.”
For vendors, the new guidelines feel like a light at the end of a long tunnel. But for couples, it’s a continued challenge.
Shawna Scoville and Will Gallagher of Green Island got engaged last summer, and are planning a hope-filled outdoor event for 200 people this November. They’ve conducted almost all of their conversations with vendors, venues, and photographers over Zoom, all while crossing their fingers that more people will get the jab by this fall. They don’t really consider themselves a “COVID couple,” having watched their friends grapple with postponing or canceling their events last year — but if, likewise, you’re planning your dream day in the midst of a COVID nightmare, they have some first-hand advice:
- Have a backup plan. Scoville and Gallagher say their venue reserved a backup date for them nearly six months out in May 2022, and many vendors are allowing couples to postpone the Big Day without losing their deposit. In the meantime, they’ve made a list of their biggest priorities for the event, and are giving themselves until Labor Day to see where things stand.
“It’s been really important for us to kind of talk through Plan A and Plan B. What are those things that would make us move the date?" Scoville explains. "Right now you can’t have any dancing, and for us it’s really important to have that part of our wedding, and so we wanted to make sure that we set that backup date, in case we still couldn’t dance in November.”
Well, technically, the new state guidelines do allow for dancing at weddings – but guests must stay within their household, in “dancing zones” six feet apart. Tables must also be spaced out, with assigned seating and signs reminding guests to social distance. Provided all 200 of their friends and family are allowed to attend this November, Scoville plans to include a range of table sizes at her reception, to prevent different households from splitting space.
Which brings us to —
- Get creative. Whether you’re shopping for Bride-and-Groom masks, testing cake samples via takeout, or live streaming your ceremony, today’s couples are finding new ways to make it work. For Scoville and Gallagher, that means making red, yellow, and green bracelets for their guests, so they can flag their comfort levels throughout the event.
“Red means I’m not comfortable with like, hugs and handshakes and things like that. Green means ‘I’m good!’ Green means I’m comfortable, you can hug me," Scoville smiles. "Or maybe in that case green would mean ‘I’m vaccinated.’”
What Scoville and Gallagher haven’t figured out yet is pre-wedding testing for all of their guests, which will have to take place just days or even hours before the event. Guests can use either a PCR or rapid test to get the job done – but will they have to schedule and pay for it themselves? Whose job is it to “man the door,” and check for testing? And who is responsible if it all goes wrong?
Scoville and Gallagher aren’t alone in their confusion – many vendors have been anxious about the details as well. Michelle Dischiavo is the owner and lead wedding planner at Intuition Event Coordination and Floral Design in Latham.
"Will it be the bride and groom’s responsibility? The responsibility of the venue owner?" Dischiavo wonders. "You know, as a planner, I cannot assume the responsibility nor the liability that is entailed with making sure that all of the people attending the wedding have gotten a negative COVID test. Like, I hold insurance, but I don't hold that much insurance."
In detailing its guidelines, the state clarified “responsible parties” for wedding events to include “event venue and facility owners or operators, and event organizers.”
Still, Dischiavo is happy to see relief after a tough year. Given the economic impact of the pandemic on young adults, she expects weddings will steer clear of the Capital Region’s usual $30,000-$40,000 price tag and remain small in 2021, perhaps even 2022.
That said, she advises newly engaged couples to start planning as soon as possible – because while the industry hasn’t been working, it has been booking far into the future.
“I would say you should book at least a year in advance, just so that you can get the vendors that you want," says Dischiavo. "I would say 12-15 months is really ideal, especially for the venues themselves.”
As for Wagner, he says it could be summer or fall before Waldorf Tuxedo sees any impact from the new guidelines. Luckily, he owns his building, and thinks he could hold on for another year if needed. But for Ruggiero, the situation’s a little more perilous. He says most of the March and April brides at Sixty State Place already postponed before the new capacity limits were announced. Furthermore, he applied for an extensive disaster loan last year – and repayment starts in June.
“That money’s all gone, I used it for paying rent, utilities, and business expenses such as business owner’s insurance, and all this stuff that you have to have," he explains. "When this first happened, we didn’t think that this was gonna last this long. So I got the loan thinking, ‘Jeez, there’ll still be money left with the loan, I might not even need all the loan money,’ if we started back up in August, even September of 2020 and got at least one quarter’s worth of business done. But we got nothing done, so.”
If all else fails, there’s always city hall.
Also included in the guidelines:
- Masks must be worn by all guests, unless eating or drinking.
- "Responsible parties" must notify the county health department at least five days ahead of time if their event will exceed 50 people.
- Guests must sign-in as they arrive, to help with potential contract tracing.
- Live musicians and DJs are allowed, but they must be separated from attendees by at least 12 feet or a physical barrier — especially if they aren't wearing a mask, or are playing a wind instrument.
- Ceremonial "first dances" are still allowed, and other couples may join in, but they must stay six feet apart.
- Venues can host multiple events at the same time, so long as there is enough space on the property for the events to stay separate.