It’s a twist on the age-old story. Two people meet. They fall in love. They decide to get married. They … sue?
Right now, in New York, there is a legal fight over whether large, indoor wedding receptions can be held and ultimately, at present, the question remains unanswered. There is a pending lawsuit that will likely have a great impact on the wedding industry and engaged couples. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and this pending case, there is a great deal of uncertainty in the wedding industry, leaving vendors and couples alike questioning how, and if, and when, to plan weddings. Our experienced New York attorneys will help with any concerns involving your wedding.
The legal issues surrounding weddings and the wedding industry in the midst of a pandemic affect everyone whose livelihoods and life plans involve marriage. Caterers to calligraphers, wedding gown salons to hair salons, wedding service providers and engaged couples are all affected by what is happening in the courts when it comes to weddings being cancelled. From individuals and companies counting on weddings for their economic survival to engaged couples counting on being able to get married when, where and how they always envisioned, the issues are significant and impactful. To engaged couples and all of the industry professionals who serve them, weddings are not “non-essential gatherings” and holding, postponing, or cancelling them all have emotional and financial implications. At Rosenbaum & Taylor, our experience has taught us that navigating those consequences requires a keen understanding of what is at stake, what the legal issues are and a sensitivity to the needs of those involved.
Right before their wedding date, an engaged couple should be checking on all of the details that will make their day special and getting even more excited about sharing their love with their family and friends. Wedding venues and wedding service providers should be busily preparing to showcase their talents to make the couples’ day memorable. Weddings, whether small or large, often involve bringing together the work and skills of many people. In the age of COVID-19, makeup artists, hair stylists, florists, photographers, videographers, bands, DJs, bakers, caterers, event planners and engaged couples alike are struggling to understand the legal landscape in which weddings can, or cannot, or will, or will not take place.
Two couples seeking to hold their weddings at a golf club in Erie County, New York, just outside of Buffalo, sued New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo over his executive orders limiting indoor receptions for weddings to fifty people or fewer. One of the couples’ main arguments was that because indoor dining in that region of New York was allowed at fifty percent of capacity, indoor wedding receptions should similarly be permitted to operate at fifty percent capacity. The couples argued that the differences between allowable capacity at restaurants and in wedding venues constituted unequal treatment. The couples also argued that the restrictions created by the governor’s COVID-19-related executive orders violated their First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights. They argued that the limitations on gatherings would deprive them of the ability to have their loved ones witness and fully participate in their once-in-a-lifetime celebrations, as contemplated by their faith.
Agreeing with the couples, U.S. District Court Judge Glenn Suddaby, in the Northern District of New York, ruled that the two weddings, one with 115 guests, and one with 175 guests could be held as scheduled. The Court’s ruling permitted wedding reception halls to operate at the same level of permissible capacity as restaurants as long as the wedding venue and guests complied with the same rules being applied to restaurants, including having tables placed at least six-feet apart and mandating face coverings when not seated.
The State of New York filed an appeal, arguing that weddings cannot be treated the same way restaurants are treated and that weddings pose a much greater risk of virus transmission than restaurants do. The State argued that in restaurants, small groups of diners stay within their own groups and enter and leave at different times, but that at weddings, large groups of people interact in close proximity and celebrate together for many hours. In support of the appeal, the New York State Health Commissioner wrote about the danger of large gatherings becoming “super spreader events” because the more people with whom an individual interacts at a gathering and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher the potential risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and the higher the potential for COVID-19 spreading. He argued that as a group’s size increases, so does the risk of transmitting the virus and so does the chance that someone in attendance is already infected and contagious, even if that person is entirely asymptomatic.
The Governor’s office criticized the Court’s ruling as irresponsible, saying that it endangers public health by allowing for large, non-essential gatherings, and has stated that it will immediately pursue any available legal remedies, to protect and maintain the low levels of COVID-19 infections in New York. The Governor’s office has also interpreted the decision as applying only to the two couples who brought suit, writing that any and all other weddings must still follow the restrictions that limit large, non-essential gatherings.
The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit granted New York State’s request for a stay of the order allowing the weddings at issue to proceed. By granting the request for a temporary stay, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the weddings could not procced until that appellate court hears New York State’s motion for a stay. As of this writing, the appeal has not yet been decided.
As we wait for the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to issue its ruling, which may provide some clarity on these issues, the attorneys at Rosenbaum & Taylor are working with our wedding industry clients and engaged clients to determine the best individualized approach for their circumstances. We are also helping them analyze, reconsider and re-draft their contracts, as appropriate, to take into account the challenges presented by COVID-19 and other possible future epidemics or pandemics. Our goal, as always, is to work with our clients to craft strategies tailored to their needs, to achieve the best possible outcome.