Wedding bell blues: Venues left scrambling as COVID closures lead to cascade of issues — and questions from would-be brides & grooms

By Brett Johnson
New Jersey | May 26, 2020 at 11:00 am

Jeanne Cretella has done a lot of tying the knot as owner of Landmark Hospitality. Now, though, it’s her hands that are tied.

During what should be the premier season for wedding celebrations, gowns have been hung in closets. Couples and the venues they agreed to be married at have postponed nuptials to abide by New Jersey’s ban on public gatherings while COVID-19 continues to circulate.

Jeanne Cretella of Landmark Hospitality.

Cretella, whose business manages several Garden State venues used for weddings, expects the March restriction to last until maybe June’s end.

“We’re in the business of creating memories and providing the most special day in life of brides and grooms,” she said. “It’s heart-wrenching that we’re not able to do what we’ve been doing all these years.”

The reason is in black and white for health officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s latest guidance still names weddings on its website as one of the gatherings that offer opportunities for person-to-person contact and therefore pose risks of COVID-19 transmission.

The CDC has recommended that larger gatherings, with its example being more than 250 people, should be canceled, as well as any gathering of more than 10 people “for organizations that serve higher-risk populations.” Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders have ended community gatherings of any size in New Jersey, while giving people the option of conducting weddings virtually.

Cretella and other wedding venue owners say most couples are just choosing to postpone their wedding plans instead of canceling altogether. But those couples are eager to know if the start of July is definitely when wedding bells will start to ring again, and if wedding plans will have to change in other ways.

Liberty House in Jersey City, one of the wedding venues managed by Landmark Hospitality.

Those running wedding venues don’t have all the answers yet. What’s certain is that they’re going to be giving people the option of spreading out more to uphold social distancing recommendations, such as sitting eight people at a table instead of 12.

“One thing that’s impossible for us to do is to tell a client who has booked an event for 250 people that you now need to be uninviting 100 people,” Cretella said. “That’s not realistic.”

Cretella said a lot of what weddings will have to look like in the future — and when they’ll even happen again — comes down to what state leaders decide. Cretella, a former chair of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association‘s board, has a voice in that herself as an appointee on Murphy’s reopening task force.

“We’re happy with the direction the governor’s task force is moving in, and we want to continue to move in that direction,” she said. “As an industry, we’re looking to get back up and running as soon as possible.”

No walking down aisles for two months has had an impact that outweighs just venues.

Maria Daidone of River Vale wedding venue The Estate at Florentine Gardens said there’s an entire ecosystem that’s built by local weddings. That includes now-out-of-work, often self-employed individuals such as photographers, florists, disc jockeys, banks, wedding invitation makers and other businesses and vendors.

Daidone added that local restaurants and hotels benefit from having weekend wedding travelers visiting, as well.

Maria Daidone of the Estate at Florentine Gardens.

“And it has created turmoil for the couples, too,” she said. “As you can imagine, for all these weddings to be postponed — leaving couples scrambling to reschedule weddings — has been very emotional.”

However emotional it might be, there seems to be a willingness to step carefully. Daidone repeatedly emphasized that safety of staff and guests was a top priority for the industry.

Wedding venues and the industry’s connected businesses are preparing for future weddings to have sanitation stations, contact tracing software, maybe even masks and other safety precautions.

New investments in this area, and perhaps increased labor costs, are going to add up financially for wedding venues, which means owners like Daidone don’t feel like they’ve seen the full extent yet of the pandemic’s economic toll.

That fuller picture also includes future wedding bookings that just aren’t happening at the moment.

People might be getting engaged, but they’re in less of a rush to pick a date for their wedding, as COVID-19 uncertainties still swirl. Added to that, all wedding venues can offer right now is virtual tours, which Cretella doesn’t believe inspire the same sense of urgency as in-person tours.

“Coupled with the fact that most weddings are booked 18 months out, we’re having our window of opportunity for 2021 bookings narrowing,” Cretella said.

What the wedding industry can do about that is another knotty problem for Cretella and others — and they’re busy as ever trying to figure it all out.

“We’re working harder than ever, than we have in our lives, in an industry that works hard already — 40-hour workweeks are unheard-of in this industry,” she said.

Knotty problem

For those in the wedding industry, such as Jeanne Cretella, the Paycheck Protection Program wasn’t love at first sight.

“The programs that are out there, like PPP, are hard for us to take full advantage of — because we don’t have events right now,” she said. “So, we really can’t afford to bring in staff.”

One of the pillars of the program is an assumption that businesses will have loans forgiven if they keep people on their payroll. To meet requirements for bringing loan balances to zero, businesses have to reverse reductions in employees or wages before June 30.

The wedding industry — and also the broadly defined hospitality industry as a whole — doesn’t feel as though it will be saved by that date.

Restaurant owner Amy Russo is one of the around 9,000 New Jersey-based JPMorgan Chase Business Banking clients that secured PPP loans through their bank, which ended up with an average loan size of about $138,000.

But Russo said a decline in her Toast Montclair, Toast Asbury and Toast Red Bank brunch businesses — a drop of up to 85% or 90% during the quarantine measures — has led to her laying off about two-thirds of employees.

She’s trying to bring them back … slowly. However, Russo needs a stretch of time of restrictions being lifted before she can live up to the status quo expected of PPP full loan forgiveness recipients.

“Even with the PPP money, there’s literally nothing for more than two or three employees a day to do,” she said. “So, I’m hoping the restaurant industry goes the way of the airline industry and the time period for which you can use that PPP money gets extended past June 30, so we have a fighting chance.”

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