Hundreds of Long Island catering hall owners and employees are expected to protest in Hauppauge Friday, urging Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to allow venues to host parties at 50% capacity after a Baiting Hollow facility was stripped of its liquor license last weekend for violating COVID-19 health restrictions.
Investigators from the state's multiagency task force cited Giorgio's Catering for hosting a wedding reception on Sept. 25 attended by 95 patrons — nearly double the legally allowed limit of 50 guests, state officials said.
While restaurants and bars across the state have been allowed to reopen at 50% capacity, catering venues must adhere to the 50-guest limit.
The task force, which includes the State Police and State Liquor Authority, said half the guests were observed mingling inside the hall, while the rest were outside, socializing and drinking without masks, state officials said.
Nick Casio, owner of Giorgio’s, said in a statement that the event was a "dinner party" for a newly married couple, allowing the hall to operate like a restaurant and at 50% of its 513-person capacity. But investigators, he said, saw a woman in a white dress and labeled the party a wedding.
"We have an SLA hearing in a few weeks," Casio said. "We are confident that we will have our liquor license reinstated shortly after."
The suspension, Casio said, forced another couple to host a dry reception at Giorgio's on Sunday.
"This was upsetting but the wedding was held," he said, adding there have not been any cancellations to date. "We felt so sorry for her that we refunded half of the couple’s event cost."
State officials said Giorgio's was the subject of two previous complaints in July for hosting weddings of 100 guests or more and that a dinner party for a wedding couple would still not qualify as a restaurant operation.
"Some business owners still believe these health and safety measures are optional, and we will not hesitate to hold those who recklessly put their fellow New Yorkers' health and safety at risk accountable," Cuomo said in a Tuesday news release in which he announced 16 businesses had lost their liquor licenses for violating his executive order.
In total, 217 businesses have lost their licenses for COVID violations, including 15 on Long Island, although 4 had their licenses restored after paying fines of $25,000 to $35,000, according to state records. Businesses in violation of COVID-19 regulations face fines up to $10,000 per violation.
Some caterers and Suffolk lawmakers contend the regulations have pushed them to the brink of bankruptcy, forcing them to live on loans because of a lack of revenue.
"It's an industry that has been forgotten about," said Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, a critic of the state policy and the organizer of Friday's protest. "The governor has done great things in allowing restaurants to reopen at 50% capacity but we are looking for that to happen for the catering facilities as well."
Giglio, a Republican running for State Assembly in November, said the state regulations also affect florists, hotels, photographers, bridal and tuxedo shops, bands and DJs — some of whom are expected to attend Friday's protest.
Administration spokesman Jack Sterne said that unlike restaurants, patrons at large events such as weddings often arrive and leave at the same time, mingle together, travel from long distances, including states under quarantine orders, and often ignore social distancing when drinking.
"As we have seen in weddings across the country, including in New York, large events dramatically increase the risk of COVID and can easily become super-spreader events," Sterne said. "We understand some folks may be unhappy with these rules — but better unhappy than sick, or worse."
Melissa Fleischut, president and chief executive of the New York State Restaurant Association, which includes catering halls, supports increasing the 50-person limit but is not backing a 50% capacity limit.
"I don't think most [caterers] can break even at 50 people," Fleischut said. "They are hoping for 150, which may be a better number. And they definitely need additional federal funding; more [Paycheck Protection Program] money and a dedicated, broad restaurant and catering fund at the federal level."
Several caterers, including Riviera Waterfront Mansion in Massapequa, have filed a class-action lawsuit against Cuomo, State Attorney General Letitia James and other state agencies, arguing that the limitations on large gatherings have been selectively enforced, including exemptions for protests in the wake of George Floyd's death while in police custody in Minneapolis.
"Under the pretext of public health, the restrictions are imposed widely and ostensibly universally," the suit states. "However, upon scrutiny, it is revealed that the executive orders leak like a sieve, and defendants have carved out numerous exceptions in an arbitrary and capricious manner according to their own political preferences and value judgments."