Outdoor wedding venue Belle Garden Estate (BGE) is suing Governor Ralph Northam over Executive Order 72. The governor has begun relaxing restrictions on outdoor activities, allowing the lower of either 1,000 people or 30 percent capacity at many outdoor venues. However, outdoor wedding venues are not included in those relaxed restrictions.
“So, we are fighting to make the Governor take our industry seriously and to give us the same rights he is giving to every other form of entertainment venue in Virginia,” BGE owner Isabelle Russell said on a GoFundMe page. BGE is in Wirtz, south of Roanoke.
“I am so sick of sleepless nights wondering how we are going to pay our bills and how many of my friends are going to go out of business because the governor is threatening to take away another year of business from us.”
Lawyer Tim Anderson is representing BGE. Their complaint states, “Plaintiff is an outdoor wedding venue which has multiple weddings beginning in April 2021 and scheduled throughout the year; said weddings are all scheduled to exceed 25 attendees.”
The complaint argues that EO 72 discriminates against wedding venues by allowing outdoor entertainment venues expanded capacity, but not extending that to wedding venues. The only way for outdoor wedding venues to have more than 25 people is for those weddings to have a religious component, exempting them from the capacity restriction under an exemption for church services.
“The allowance of Entertainment and Amusement businesses referenced above to function with restrictions of 30 percent of capacity, up to 1000 people, versus the limitations of a maximum of 25 people in an outdoor non-religious ceremony is per se discriminatory to the Plaintiff and the industry of wedding venues and is in violation of the Plaintiff’s First Amendment Rights to organize and freely assemble and Fourteenth Amendment rights to Equal Protection under the United States Constitution,” the complaint states.
The complaint also notes that restaurants can have unlimited outdoor seating as long as other restrictions are followed, but outdoor wedding venues are still limited to 25 people, even if the venue follows the same restrictions.
“As a wedding venue owner and a wedding planner, this last year has been a challenge to keep our business open. We have had wedding after wedding either reschedule or have to cancel altogether,” Russell said on her GoFundMe. “And I have dealt with so many clients, sobbing, heartbroken, and out of a lot of money seeing the best day of their life ripped away from them. I have watched our industry slowly dwindle and fall to the background. And the governor has made it very clear that he does not value our $3 billion dollar wedding industry here in Virginia.”
The lawsuit is scheduled for a hearing on March 24 at 3 p.m.
The Historic Post Office (HPO) is a primarily indoor wedding venue in Hampton Roads. Venue Manager Kelsey Leeper has created a Change.org petition asking Northam to put wedding venues under the same restrictions as restaurants.
“Our event venue is 20,000 plus square feet in size and yet, we are only allowed to have gatherings of 10 people or less. Restaurants that are not even a quarter of our size are frequently having 50 plus patrons in their facility at one time,” her petition states.
Leeper told The Virginia Star that normally, her venue would be booked for weddings every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday during their peak season March through December. HPO charges $5,000 for Friday and Sunday slots, and $6,000 for the Saturday slots, for a total revenue of $16,000 per weekend.
“We’re really essentially shut down right now, because we have a huge venue, so it’s really not feasible for the price people are paying,” Leeper said. “It’s not feasible for them to just have 10 people.”
HPO has some part-time staff who only work and get paid when there are events at the venue. But HPO is still paying Leeper and her assistant who are both full-time.
“We still have maintenance going on all the time, and of course utilities,” she said. “All of the overhead is still very expensive for the building just keeping the lights on.”
The closure isn’t just hurting the business and its employees.
“We have a deposit that is nonrefundable, like many wedding venues, so [clients] are just postponing which is hard on them,” Leeper said. “We’ve had brides from 2019 still not able to have their wedding.”
Leeper said postponing weddings is the right thing for HPO, but it comes at a cost. She said, “We’re losing dates of potentially new clients in 2021, 2022, and we’ve even postponed as far as 2023.”
Leeper said HPO gives clients the option to have a religious ceremony to avoid the capacity limits. But most clients are still postponing, and HPO is booked from May through the end of the year with postponed weddings. Leeper said they’re hoping that as the weather gets warmer Northam will relax restrictions further.
“Nothing’s looking promising right now. And the governor hasn’t even been addressing it in any of his press conferences,” Leeper said. “He won’t even mention the word wedding, which I think is especially disheartening because we simply just want to have a conversation.”
Leeper said the venue would be happy to enforce mask mandates and social distancing. There could be dance floor capacity limits, or multiple dance floors, or they could even eliminate dance floors and have guests dance near their tables. HPO could also end alcohol sales sooner, similar to alcohol sales curfews Northam has mandated for restaurants.
If Northam doesn’t relax restrictions on indoor venues, but does relax outdoor wedding restrictions, HPO might pivot to outdoor weddings. HPO is focused on its indoor spaces, so that switch would require investment in tents, cooling, and heaters.
Leeper said that many clients are canceling their weddings with HPO and opting for weddings on private property where safety precautions may not be enforced.
“So, in our minds, we would rather have our clients come into the building where it’s safe, where it’s disinfected, where it is regulated, and we have security and all of these measures put into place, versus going out into remote property and essentially having a big unruly gathering.”
She said, “When you’re not giving people options and you’re not giving people any kind of hope or deadlines, it’s kind of pushing people to this point.”
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