Wedding venues grapple with the financial realities of COVID-19

Daniel Axelrod

| Times Herald Record

CENTRAL VALLEY – Ethan Goldman and Jhunaissy Hidalgo lost sleep and weight, worried about their wedding, and sweated during the coronavirus pandemic.

They are most upset about their efforts to get a local venue owner to refund the full $ 10,000 deposit. The difference of opinion between the couple and Wayne Corts Sr., owner of the Falkirk Estate & Country Club in the Central Valley, is a microcosm of the pandemic challenges facing New York venues.

These challenges are no doubt compounded for couples and wedding venue operators in the Hudson Valley, home to a multi-million dollar wedding industry.

Local business people say they will hold out their lives after the pandemic ruined the 2020 wedding season. And the venue owners say they’ll stand up for state officials to ease capacity and operating restrictions as the pandemic subsides.

Engaged couples, meanwhile, are trapped between state restrictions and hard-hit corporations – pressured to cancel, reschedule, and tweak weddings as the pandemic turns dream days into logistical and financial nightmares.

“The only safe thing for us is to go to court and get married,” said Hidalgo. “I’m really scared of putting ink on a (new venue) contract that says ‘No Refunds’. To get a deal with a venue and reschedule everything without the pandemic being halfway over and this virus mutating, I’m not comfortable. “

Ironically, couples like Hidalgo, 34) and Goldman, 42 are arguing with venues over refunds related to the same types of contractual clauses that companies in various industries are currently fighting with insurance companies over.

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These include so-called provisions on force majeure or “force majeure”, which can impair, limit or cancel the protection against injuries, damage and losses caused by uncontrollable and unforeseen events such as natural disasters.

“I must have received well over 150 inquiries” from couples in the New York metropolitan area seeking help with refunding or changing wedding plans, said Michael Samuel, a partner at Samuel & Stein, a Manhattan firm that handles contract and labor disputes. “I can’t keep up with the number of emails and calls on the matter.”

From dream to nightmare

Planning for Goldman and Hidalgo’s wedding should never be this difficult, but neither did they ever expect to fall in love. The couple who live in Putnam County met nine years ago while working at law enforcement.

They only got close and started dating three years ago, but it happened quickly when they were charmed by each other’s smiles and humor.

“It’s the basic formula,” Goldman said. “We were friends. We were best friends then and now we love each other.”

Or as Hildago put it: “We complement each other, we communicate very well and our relationship is based on good communication.”

The couple signed a $ 33,000 wedding contract in June 2019 for an October 2020 wedding that paid $ 4,000 and an additional $ 6,000 for the $ 10,000 deposit on February 1 only a few weeks before the pandemic worsened dramatically.

Long interviews with the couple, Corts Sr., and reviews of copies of communications (provided by the couple) with the wedding venue staff paint a picture of what happened.

The interviews and communications reveal regularly changing and sometimes contradicting messages from Falkirk about when and if the wedding could be postponed and how much, if any, of a deposit could be refunded.

Goldman and Hidalgo claim Falkirk made it difficult to reschedule, said the venue was out of business and gave them a $ 2,000 refund.

You have filed an active complaint with the Attorney General asking Senator James Skoufis, D-Cornwall, to intervene. (He wrote a letter on her behalf.)

Goldman and Hildago said they wanted to reschedule initially, but as the pandemic only worsened they decided against it because many of their expected guests are older.

Five online reviews (which couldn’t be verified immediately) listed on theknot.com, a popular wedding planning website, described similar difficulties encountered by couples who said they were trying to get refunds and try to reschedule with Falkirk arrange.

Corts Sr. relentlessly denied any allegations that he and his staff would not work with couples on refunds and debt rescheduling. He said his ability to postpone a particular wedding will be affected by the severity of the pandemic and any planning needs his couples have.

He said that all of the negative reviews online came from a handful of difficult, upset couples and that he has had five-star ratings for years. Corts Sr. pointed out that he had tried to tell Goldman and Hildalgo that the Falkirk could go out of business, not that it was imminent.

“We cannot afford to be closed”

Refunding funds to Goldman and Hildalgo could take time and be gradual “because I want to keep my business intact,” said Corts Sr., who added that he was not “intimidated or threatened by couples, lawyers or the Attorney General “will or Skoufis.

“I’m 65 years old, I’ve been doing business with people since I was 12, and I’ve never taken anyone’s money to cheat on them,” said Corts Sr., who is also known for real estate development and owning other businesses , including an RV community.

Corts Sr. said he spent $ 200,000 on government aid and personally loaned Falkirk $ 300,000 to receive it. That’s after his 2020 wedding table plummeted from about 100 scheduled for 2019 to 10-15 events, he said.

Couples are lucky enough to get a refund for the wedding, let alone a full one, said Samuel, the Manhattan attorney who was inundated with letters from metropolitan couples seeking help.

Even at $ 10,000, bail is often not enough to be hunted down in court given legal fees, and contracts can contain quite a bit of ambiguity, Samuel said.

That gray area covers the extent to which clauses like “Act of God” provisions affect whether venues may have to repay couples for canceled weddings, added Samuel. About 40 percent of the time Samuel sends a letter to a venue requesting a refund, couples receive some compensation, if not necessarily all of their money, he said.

On site, Michael and Joe Bonura of Bonura Hospitality said they did their best to provide at least partial refunds to couples. Her company owns Anthony’s Pier 9 in New Windsor, the Grandview in Poughkeepsie, the Poughkeepsie Grand Hotel, and the West Hills Country Club in Wallkill, among others.

Of the 660 weddings that Bonura Hospitality booked in 2020, the company only held 50. Like other venue owners currently limited to no more than 50 guests, the Bonuras are urging Governor Andrew Cuomo to introduce capacity limits of 50 percent, with social distancing – similar to current restaurant requirements. They also want Cuomo to lift the curfew at 10 p.m.

“We cannot afford to be closed for another season or there will be no catering venues as corporate events will not take place,” said Joe Bonura. “If we can’t open this spring, 2,400 catering venues in New York are under threat.”

“Tough, you signed a contract.”

Ron Boire, co-owner of the Stagecoach Inn in Goshen, said he had lost 75 percent of his scheduled weddings and only his restaurant and inn rooms kept business going.

He used a mix of full and partial refunds, micro-weddings, and rescheduled appointments to keep customers happy. Like the Bonuras and Corts Sr., Boire urged the governor to be more sensitive and flexible about the operating restrictions of the wedding venues.

The Bonuras highlighted Cuomo’s recently released statistic that 70 percent of new COVID-19 cases have come from households and small gatherings.

They argue that government mandates have driven weddings into homes and backyards where people are exposed and conditions are not as clean and well-ventilated as professional places.

According to Dr. Marina Keller, an infectious disease doctor at Middletown Medical, is statistically biased at that 70 percent figure. Most COVID-19 diseases are transmitted at home because venues, restaurants, and other public spaces are so limited in terms of capacity and hours of operation.

Jack Sterne, a spokesman for the Cuomo administration, said drinking at weddings made guests more uninhibited and less likely to be socially distant or to wear masks. He also cited several cases where weddings became super-spreader events.

For his part, Keller believes that COVID-19 will permanently change the way society works. She believes it could take America all of 2021 to get the disease under control.

Even as the world begins to normalize, she said, “weddings, religious events, crowds, bars and restaurants where people are together and share food” remain the riskiest places.

“Unfortunately (COVID-19) is detrimental to the economy, but that is exactly what is needed to reduce transmission,” said Keller.

These realities are cold comfort to couples like Hildalgo and Goldman as they seek to hold their weddings and begin their futures as married couples.

“Wedding venue salespeople will sit across the table from you and give the same speech about how this is the happiest day of your life. They thank you and say, ‘We will do anything for you,’ ”Goldman said. “Then the pandemic happens and it’s nobody’s fault. But when you say, “Hey, there are people in my family who might die” (wedding venues), you say, “Tough, you signed a contract.”

daxelrod@th-record.com