PEABODY — Gov. Charlie Baker's phased reopening plan, meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, has wedding and event venues feeling left at the altar.

One of those owners is Sarah Narcus, who is hoping the curtain does not fall on Olio Peabody, her modern, 6,000 square-foot event venue on Main Street in Peabody, which opened in May 2019 in what was a theater and later a warehouse space.

The business was on a path to profitability, she said, but then the pandemic hit in March and the events business in the state ground to a halt.

"It's so limited it's not sustainable," said Narcus, co-owner of Olio with her mother, Ellen Basch, about the third phase of the reopening, which limited her capacity to 25 people despite the size of her space. Large capacity events must remain closed until Phase 4.

While outdoor venues can now have up to 100 people, the problem, according to a new wedding and event industry trade group, is that many traditional venues don't have tents or are not set up to hold outdoor weddings.

The rules are also arbitrary, Narcus said.

Her downstairs restaurant tenant can fit 50 diners indoors by spacing tables 6 feet apart, but her cavernous space is limited to 25 people when she could easily seat more than 100 people 6 feet apart to promote social distancing.

Though Olio is now booking elopement ceremonies of up to 25 people for this summer, the gatherings will be unprofitable because of the overhead, such as the cost to turn on the air conditioning. She is also pre-booking weddings for 2021, but said her business is at risk.

The concern, she said, is that the state's "new normal" phase depends on the development of vaccines or treatments, and that indefinite time period is unworkable given that weddings are planned four to 14 months in advance. 

She also noted that Peabody sits just 20 miles from the New Hampshire border, meaning that brides are heading to the Granite State to get hitched because of far fewer restrictions there. People are also taking their weddings into their backyards, with dance floors, buffets and no capacity limits spelled out in the governor's reopening plan.

Wedding and Event Alliance

The inability to host larger events has put at risk a $1.4 billion wedding industry in the Bay State, according to the Wedding and Event Alliance of Massachusetts, which formed last week to be the voice of an industry that also supports, tourism, lodging and travel, plus vendors such as photographers, caterers and linen companies, to name a few. It's an industry that has not worked together in the past.

On July 9, 60 wedding and event venues came together in West Bridgewater to form the alliance, which plans to lobby the Baker administration and the state's Reopening Advisory Board to allow them to reopen in a way that makes sense.

"All we want is the opportunity to present our case to the governor and the reopening committee," said Tim Briggs, who chairs the alliance and who is the operations manager for the Canoe Club Ballroom in West Bridgewater.

The state's Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, which is helping to implement the state's phased reopening plan, says the administration meets with various stakeholders and groups to discuss the safe reopening of workplaces and industry sectors.

Briggs understands the state "had all the right reasons to implement rules," but for brides, the rules don't make the cut.

"There is not a bride who hasn't said to us," Briggs said, "twenty-five people wearing a mask with no dance floor, that is not a wedding."

Under the alliance's proposal, instead of basing the number of guests on official occupancy limits, the industry says it makes sense to base it on being able to social distance properly, and that events should be governed by the same rules as restaurants with a 40% capacity and six guests per table with tables spaced 6 feet apart.

The plan calls for no self-service food or drink, no walk-up bar service, and the cake-cutting ceremony would use a cake not served to guests to avoid cross contamination, among other details of the plan, which would start Aug. 3 and gradually increase capacity in three more steps over a couple of months.

Some local venues represented at the meeting included: Beauport Cruiselines, Cape Ann Marina, The Elks at Bass Rocks, The Beauport Hotel, Hammond Castle, the North Shore Arts Association, Tavern on the Harbor, and Stage Fort Park, in Gloucester; the Rockport Art Association, Rockport Golf Club, and Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport; Eastern Yacht Club in Marblehead; Glen Magna Farms in Danvers; Gould Barn, The Commons and Peirce Farm at Witch Hill in Topsfield; The HarborPoint at Root, Hamilton Hall, The House of Seven Gables and Hotel Salem in Salem; The Mansion on Turner Hill, Vinwood Catering and the Hellenic Center in Ipswich; Misselwood Events at Endicott College in Beverly; and Smith Barn at Brooksby Farm in Peabody.


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