As Events Remain Sharply Limited by COVID, a Coalition Tries for Middle Ground with Lamont

As winter approaches without any indication of when restrictions to contain the spread of COVID-19 will be loosened for Connecticut, the events industry  — catering businesses, event venues, designers, florists, party rental companies, musicians and DJs — are banding together to ask state and federal officials for economic assistance and for the chance to reopen.

The guidelines, put in place in the spring in a series of executive orders by Gov. Ned Lamont, currently limit gatherings to 25 people indoors and 100 people outside, including staff. 

Shiran Nicholson, owner of the Knowlton, a venue in Bridgeport, said that those restrictions simply aren’t sustainable for the industry. He said that venues need to be able to host 100 to 150 people indoors. His own venue normally handles requests for gatherings of 200 to 350 people. 

So in April, Nicholson launched the Connecticut Event Industry Coalition, a group of several hundred businesses and individuals involved in different aspects of event planning and hosting. Many who knew one another before the pandemic came together to brainstorm ideas about how they could stay in business given the restrictions.

“I think all of us were scared beyond belief,” said Evan Taback, the owner of Boppers Events in Rocky Hill, which provides equipment and furniture rentals for parties, as well as DJs and entertainment. 

Taback, who has been in business 25 years, said that in a normal year, they average 2500 events. This year, he said, his company has hosted less than 100. 

“It’s been a nightmare,” said Linda Sample, owner of A Thyme to Cook, a catering business in North Stonington. 

Sample said that 2020 was expected to be her busiest year yet — until COVID struck.  She has since postponed 53 events to next year, and returned at least $47,000 of deposits. 

By the end of May, Nicholson and several other founding members of the coalition had assembled a set of draft protocols for event venues that they say would still maintain social distancing while also allowing more people to attend the gatherings. They sent the draft guidelines to Lamont,  and spoke to the Governor at a town hall, but so far members of the coalition say they are disappointed by the lack of response. 

“We kind of stopped even submitting stuff like this to the State, because they just don’t read it,” said Nicholson. 

Asked about the issue, David Lehman,  commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, said that the governor’s office is concerned about the risk of COVID transmission at large gatherings, and that there has been “anecdotal evidence” that events like these have a high risk of spreading the virus. 

Lehman also said that the governor is aware of the struggles that the events industry is going through. He said the governor’s office has already incorporated some of the coalition suggestions into their current guidelines, such as employee-manned buffets and passing drinks and hors d’oeuvres. 

But Sample, who is also a nurse practitioner, says some of the current guidelines don’t make sense from a public health perspective. At one point, she said, the governor had approved bars at events. Sample’s husband designed a variety of plexiglass shields. Then, the regulations changed, and they had to go back to serving drinks by hand, which requires more staff. 

“I think [a bar] is a lot safer,” said Sample. “From a public health point of view, it’s a lot less invasive.” 

The coalition guidelines outline in detail every phase of a large gathering, from arrival to departure. They include appointing a person responsible for coordinating between the different groups involved in planning the event, and keeping a list of event attendees for contact tracing purposes. Guests are required to wear masks, and their temperatures are taken on arrival. Tables will be six feet apart, markings made on the floor and doors propped. Microphones will be disinfected frequently. Staff wearing face coverings and gloves will serve all food and drinks –from the hors d’oeuvres to the wedding cake — rather than having self-serve stations. 

Members of the coalition argue that it is better to have set guidelines which professionals can follow in accordance with safety guidelines, rather than risking that people “go rogue,” throwing private parties that largely ignore social distancing rules. 

The coalition isn’t asking for an immediate return to pre-pandemic-size gatherings, but a gradual increase in the number of people allowed in an event space. Scott Dolch of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, who has been working with the coalition, said that he has been pushing for restaurants and venues to operate at 50 percent capacity, with a cap on 100 people indoors. 

For many of these businesses, the coming cold weather may mean that this year is already lost. But both Nicholson and Tabek believe that having a timeframe for increasing event capacity will encourage people to feel safe to hold events in the future. Unlike restaurants, which can begin operating the moment that restrictions are lifted, large events like weddings have to be booked six to 18 months in advance. 

Lehman said that any further decisions about reopening won’t happen until mid- to late September. He said that the governor’s office wants to first make sure that the reopening of the schools does not cause any spike in cases.

Lehman also added that the governor’s office did not want to reopen prematurely and then have to roll back earlier guidelines, as both Rhode Island and Massachusetts have done. He said they are consulting with public health experts and looking at data. 

For members of the coalition, the lack of a timeframe for reopening is evidence of a much larger problem, that their industry is not being heard. 

“That is the crux of the matter,” said Christine Hussey, director of sales and marketing at the Inn at Longshore and one of the Coalition’s founding members. “We’re not being recognized, we’re not being understood.” 

“We’ve gotten left behind,” echoed Taback. “No matter what we’ve done, it doesn’t seem to do anything.” 

It’s unlikely that the industry will return to anything like normal before next spring, and even then, there’s no way to be sure. 

Nicholson says the coalition has met with Sen. Richard Blumenthal to discuss the possibility of long-term federal funding. He also said they will continue to reach out to the governor’s office for further talks about reopening. 

“[Connecticut] has the best numbers. So what are you waiting for … try a little bit, open the event industry to 50 people. Let us show you that 50 is okay. Go to 75, you know, every two weeks,” said Nicholson. “Let us try. Give us a fighting chance.”

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