Virginia wedding venues say updated COVID restrictions are unfair; Lawsuit seeks to invalidate them

Virginia Politics

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Some Virginia wedding venues say Gov. Ralph Northam’s updated coronavirus restrictions are continuing to treat them unfairly.

It’s the focus of a lawsuit that seeks to invalidate the restrictions in certain settings. The case was heard on Wednesday afternoon and the judge is expected to make a decision by Friday, though he said it could be sooner.

The hearing comes one day after Gov. Northam announced plans to ease several restrictions. Starting April 1st, he is allowing social gatherings of up to 100 people outdoors and 50 people indoors. That’s an increase from the current rules, which authorize groups of 25 outdoors and 10 indoors.

While the lawsuit was originally filed at the beginning of March, the attorney representing Belle Garden Estates, a Franklin County wedding venue, said in a statement on Tuesday evening that he not changing his posture in the case.

Wedding venues are being treated differently then other outdoor venues.  The Governor today allowed outdoor entertainment venues such as baseball stadiums, raceways and concerts to have 30% occupancy with no cap.  That means a 10,000 person baseball stadium could have as many as 3000 people, while wedding venues are restricted to 100.  This is discriminatory. Why can a wedding venue not operate with up to 30% capacity? We are hopeful the Court will engage and enter an appropriate injunction against this unequal treatment.

Attorney Tim Anderson

That sentiment was shared by other wedding venues who spoke to 8News on Wednesday.

Kim Moody is the event director at The Estate at River Run in Goochland. She said the 22,000 square- foot space can safely accommodate many more people than will be allowed indoors come April. According to Moody, they proved it last summer, when coronavirus cases were similar to current rates and the cap on social gatherings was 250 people.

“It’s kind of a slap in the face to our industry,” Moody said. “You can have 5,000 people at a graduation commencement but you can’t have 55 at a wedding.”

The criticism comes as the wedding industry is facing immense financial hardship with minimal assistance from the government, according to Moody. She said they haven’t been able to qualify for Paycheck Protection Program loans or Rebuild Virginia small business grants.

“Everybody has drained every penny they have saved their entire careers to be able to survive this last year,” Moody said. “The next two-to-three weeks is make or break bankruptcy for many of the wedding professionals because they can’t just keep hemorrhaging money.”

Kelsey Leeper, who manages The Historic Post Office in Hampton, said the increased cap on social gatherings in April came too late for couples planning months in advance. Leeper said they have just two events scheduled for the whole month after previously having every Friday, Saturday and Sunday booked.

Overall, Leeper said they have had 40 cancellations and more than 60 postponements, which will continue to impact them financially well into 2022.

“For those who have postponed because of the guest limit, the increase isn’t enough for them,” Leeper said. “People book this huge building with hopes of having 150 people so it’s really not feasible for them for the amount of money that they are spending to only have 50 people.”

Leeper said she started a petition in January asking for a one-on-one meeting with Northam’s Administration to explain the industry’s concerns and suggest alternative regulations. It now has more than 14,000 signatures.

“We still don’t feel like we’re being heard,” Leeper said. “We were pretty desperate so 50 people is a move in the right direction but it is still pretty inconsistent and unfair when being compared to other business regulations.” 

Northam’s office didn’t immediately respond to 8New’s request for comment on Wednesday.

In the past, Northam has said weddings–filled with drinking, dancing, hugging–are higher risk than other outdoor entertainment venues.

Bride Gracie Gilmore recently decided to postpone her reception. She works in a hospital and has seen the impacts of COVID-19 up close.

“Even if they allowed the right amount of people, it still probably wouldn’t be safe and we knew some people would feel uncomfortable so we just decided to move it to next year,” Gilmore said.

When asked about push back from venues at his press conference on Tuesday, Northam didn’t commit to any changes.

“What we’re changing now will apply to April. I’m hopeful just like everyone with spring and summertime coming, if the numbers in the communities will cooperate and continue to go down and vaccination go up, we will be able to lift even more measures as we move forward,” Northam said.

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