New York State is appealing a federal judge's decision allowing two upstate weddings to go forward, in spite of executive orders prohibiting large gatherings.
U.S. District Court Judge Glenn Suddaby's ruling came in response to a lawsuit over two weddings at Arrowhead Golf Club, in Akron, about 25 miles east of Buffalo. The golf club's co-owner helped initiate the suit, according to Syracuse.com. Two couples argued that Governor Andrew Cuomo exhibited an "unprecedented abuse of power" by issuing executive orders during the pandemic, including one that only allows for gatherings of 50 people or less.
The couples claimed the order discriminates against weddings—and violates their constitutional rights to "free exercise of religion, assembly and association, and equal protection"— and suggests that because outdoor graduations and large public demonstrations, like the protests over George Floyd's death and police brutality, were permitted, they should be allowed to have their weddings of more than 50 people in restaurants and similar reception venues.
"Rules barring family and friends from participating in the wedding process undermine the rite of marriage in the Christian faith," the lawsuit also stated.
In his decision, Judge Suddaby agreed with the plaintiffs, writing, "the State’s 50-person gathering restriction on social gatherings is impermissibly arbitrary under the facts of this case... the State has failed to adequately rebut Plaintiffs’ argument that a 50-person limit on a social gathering is not consistent with Defendants’ allowance of exemptions to the 50-person gathering restriction for activities such as dining at restaurants and participating in graduation ceremonies."
The August 7th decision allowed Jenna DiMartile and Justin Crawford to go ahead with their 115-person wedding and reception on the same day. The other plaintiffs, Pamella Giglia and Joe Durolek, have a wedding with 175 guests scheduled for August 22nd, and Suddaby's injunction only applied to these two weddings—but restaurants, venues, and wedding planners are closely watching the next moves.
"The judge's decision is irresponsible at best, as it would allow for large, non-essential gatherings that endanger public health," said Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for the governor last week. "We will pursue all available legal remedies immediately and continue defending the policies that have led New York to having—and maintaining—one of the lowest infection rates in the country, while cases continue to rise in dozens of other states.”
Outside of New York City, restaurants are currently allowed to have indoor dining at 50% capacity—except for when it comes to weddings or similar celebrations. Luca James, a co-owner of Arrowhead Golf Club, told Syracuse.com that their event space holds 438 people: "So we would legally have over 200 people eating dinner one night and the following night; if we had a wedding and we called it a wedding, we would have been able to only have 50 people there and that’s not right."
State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker pointed out in his declaration, filed on August 11th, that weddings are significantly different from how a restaurant operates on any given night. "The Court assumed that a wedding celebration has a 'high degree of similarity' to an ordinary dining situation in a restaurant serving a comparable number of people," Zucker wrote. "In fact, there are many important differences between such a celebration and ordinary restaurant dining, and those differences are highly significant from a public health perspective. At a restaurant, parties come and go at different times, they dine separately from one another, and they spend, perhaps, an hour or two at a meal. At a wedding or other celebratory event, guests arrive and leave at roughly the same time, they do so for the very purpose of celebrating together, making mingling among guests inevitable, and they usually spend far more time in the event space than patrons typically spend dining in a restaurant.... These differences greatly increase the probability of transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Therefore, the number of people permitted in a restaurant for ordinary restaurant dining cannot be used for a social gathering at the same facility, such as a wedding or other similar event."
Outdoor graduations, Zucker explained, are held outdoors with strict protocols (constant mask-wearing, except for photographs; a lot of social distancing) and do not involve receptions. As for civil rights protests, he said that NY State did not explicitly authorize them, "The question of how much force, if any, should be used to enforce these limits is left to local law enforcement agencies, who must exercise discretion in these cases as in others in deciding whether and to what extent the use of force is warranted to enforce the law in light of all relevant circumstances."
Zucker stated he was especially worried about the August 22nd wedding, with its 175 guests, because, "One hallmark of a super-spreader event is its size. As CDC stated in June 12th, 2020 guidance, 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 COVID-19 spreading. As a group’s size increases, so does the risk of transmitting the virus to a wider cluster. A large group size also increases the chance that someone present will already have the virus and be contagious, even if entirely asymptomatic. This is the reason that size limits have been imposed on gatherings of all kinds by the Executive Orders."
The state is not trying to prohibit the couple from having a wedding celebration or a religious ceremony—the event should just be limited to an indoor gathering of 50 people or fewer, he said.
While the decision only applied to those two specific weddings—and that all weddings with indoor receptions should, under state directive, be limited to 50 guests— Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon said he'd allow larger indoor weddings to take place. "Our interpretation is that weddings are now allowed at 50% capacity,” McMahon said last week. “If there’s an appeal and that changes, we’ll let you know."
A June wedding in India is being investigated as a "super-spreader" event after the groom died and 100 guests fell ill.