Catering hall proprietors are now reacting to the news that large venues are permitted to begin reopening, some as soon as March 15th, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The implications of the COVID-19 virus have been well publicized. From the thousands left dead and thousands more left waiting on bread lines, we are inundated with disturbing images and statistics. The restaurant industry is among the foremost businesses topping these macabre charts in terms of store closures and loss of employment. However, while small, local eateries are garnering much of the attention due to struggles with outdoor dining, most large catering and entertainment halls have been completely closed for almost a year now.
Many of these sites employ hundreds of hospitality workers, so the effects on families have been devastating. Yet, there is now a glimmer of light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
On Jan. 29th, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that weddings and large catering events can resume on March 15th with a limit of 50% capacity (up to 150 people,) attendees must be tested prior to entry, and the event must be approved by the local health department.
“Going forward, we are very excited about the possibility of reopening venues with testing,” Cuomo said during a press briefing, citing the recent Buffalo Bills game as a prime example of a successful large-scale event. The football game saw about 7,000 people in attendance, each receiving a COVID-19 test prior to entering the stadium with no cases of spread afterward.
Carlos Perez San Martin, the executive director of Weylin, a Williamsburg catering hall, was one of many event hosts happy to hear Cuomo’s announcement. The classically restored event space, located at 175 Broadway in Brooklyn, has been closed since last March.
“We are super excited to resume work after a full year of closed doors. If protocols and guidelines are followed we are not nervous of executing events and we are hopeful that this is the first step on our way back to normal. It will take some transitional times but I am positive that after the summer we should be close to normal and 2022 should be no different than times before COVID,” San Martin said.
Although the Weylin has been shuttered, San Martin says they are still booking reservations for events in 2021 and 2022.
“We have been taking many reservations since lockdown. Weddings are usually booked at least 9 months in advance, with an average of 12 months. Many brides have not been frightened by COVID, and have made bets that early this year a solution/vaccine would be available. A few months ago we even booked an event for November 2022,” San Martin said.
San Martin credits these early reservations as well as federal/state aid for helping the Weylin stay afloat until they are able to open again in March. While employees experienced a 40% cut in salary, and maintenance workers reduced weekly hours from 40 to 24 hours, the Weylin has been able to maintain 90% of their staff with minimal layoffs.
“Although the pandemic slowed down event bookings, it has not stopped them. We have also offered COVID discounts during the toughest times and smart couples have taken great advantage of those back then. All of these bookings have helped maintain cash flow to cope expenses,” San Martin said.
While classic venues like the Weylin have been able to maintain their staff, famous event sites such as the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park have been forced to reduce their staff altogether.
The Loeb Boathouse, located at Park Drive North, East 72nd Street is the only venue in the entirety of Central Park to be positioned right beside the lake and has been an “it spot’ for weddings, business events, and other occasions for over six decades.
Dean Poll, the concessionaire of the boathouse, shares that the pandemic has been very difficult for him and his staff. About 150 to 160 people who work at the Central Park restaurant and banquet hall have been out of work due to the lack of income since last March.
“The vast majority of people who booked during the time we were closed have rebooked for a later date,” Poll said, sharing that some individuals have had to rebook twice, not expecting the pandemic to last for as long as it has.
In addition, Poll says that some have just outright cancelled, forcing the Loeb Boathouse to return several thousands of dollars in deposits. Although there have been some cancellations, the Boathouse has also been accepting bookings throughout the entire pandemic, hoping for the day when they can reopen.
Their first event is scheduled for April, and Poll believes with their wide-open venue, high ventilated indoor space, and inclusion of air filtration, the Boathouse is more than able to welcome the 150-guest limit.
With the impending March 15th opening date just over the horizon, Poll is ready to welcome back a number of furloughed staff. The Loeb Boathouse is a union-based site, so Poll will be accepting back as many seniority employees as soon as possible.
While there are no set plans in place, the Loeb Boathouse has been prepped with the regulations many restaurants have followed.
“I think 2021 is still going to be very difficult, 2022 will be less difficult, and I would not expect to be doing 2019 business until 2024. I think it is going to take five years. The boathouse, as with many restaurants in the city, are very dependent on tourism. We get New Yorkers. We get more New Yorkers than people may think. But make no mistake about it, when a city has 65 million visitors coming, many of those people take a walk-through Central Park, and many of those people come to visit the Boathouse for ala carte. I don’t think anyone is going to expect to be seeing the volume of people we had in 2019,” Poll said.
Poll believes there are still many unknown factors to take into consideration as the state attempts to get ahead of the virus. With the amount of tourists visiting the city not expected to rise for years coupled alongside the countless others who have moved from New York City for better housing and job opportunities elsewhere, some businesses are wary of hosting events.
The Loeb Boathouse presents about 135 to 150 weddings per year in addition to other events, but Poll shares that they are currently at 45% of their usual bookings.
Coping during the pandemic was quite difficult for the Boathouse, since they didn’t think it would be feasible to open when outdoor dining was allowed. Usually, the facility can serve up approximately 450 people for ala carte, but with the regulations, serving half of their visitors would increase labor expenses. In addition, the lack of people visiting Central Park factored in on their decision to remain closed, until March 15, 2021.
Allan Kurtz, the Gotham Hall and Ziegfeld Ballroom managing director, also shared that his two event catering hall services have been closed for months. While these sites have not offered anything in regards to food and beverage, they have offered a space for other services.
“I’ve done religious services, I’ve done filmings, virtual events, and have some fashion shows coming up,” Kurtz said, underscoring the limited events held since the onset of COVID-19 at Gotham Hall and Ziegfeld Ballroom.
Both Gotham Hall and Ziegfeld Ballroom are shuttered venues, but the FDA added a parameter making it harder for certain event spaces to qualify for aid. “They added in a line that says you must have fixed seating,” Kurtz said. Comedy clubs, like neighboring Carolines on Broadway, are a prime example Kurtz uses, which supply cabaret tables instead of fixed seating and do not qualify as a shuttered venue.
“We qualify for everything with sound rigs, all the boxes are checked,” Kurtz said, disappointed that his locations do not qualify for shuttered venue aid. He is also apprehensive about the March 15th opening due to the lack of regulations provided.
Immediately after Cuomo’s announcement, Kurtz received a wedding booking for March 16th, although he says he was unable to answer the client’s questions as the rules and regulations have not been announced yet.
Also being a member of the NYC restaurant committee for the past 20 years Kurtz believes that the restaurant business has been mistreated. “All this goes to show is that the government has no idea of what we do,” Kurtz said.
While the event spaces have been closed, Kurtz considered offering his locations as a vaccination hub. However, one of the requirements included providing not only the location but medical personnel to administer the vaccine. He also tried to invite a hospital to use his sites as extended medical facilities, allowing the business to earn rent during that time, but again medical personnel and cleaning services had to be provided by Kurtz himself.
Kurtz predicts that the future of the event industry may turn hybrid, utilizing both physical and virtual space. He feels there may be some who might still be wary of returning to large gatherings, while some are clamoring to celebrate.
Currently, Kurtz has two hybrid fashion shows booked this month (with a guest attendance of 50 people) and the rest is streamed virtually. But in the years to come, with larger audiences in attendance, Kurtz hopes to have a large in-person and virtual audience.
“The hybrid mode is important because the reach is so much greater. All of sudden the people that would have never traveled could now be a part of the evening. But now they can listen to it live,” Kurtz said.