Saugerties’ Diamond Mills, other wedding venues, lose lawsuit seeking to ease Covid restrictions on capacity

The Diamond Mills complex from across the Esopus Creek. (Photo by David Gordon)

On October 13, District Judge  Frederick J. Scullin ruled against Diamond Mills and other wedding venues in a class action in which the venues sought to follow the same rules as other places of public gatherings.

The two named plaintiffs in the suit were Bill and Ted’s Riviera in Massapequa, Long Island and Partition Street Project in Saugerties, according to the suit cover sheet. The Partition Street Project is Tom Struzzieri’s Diamond Mills complex. The suit is a class action, the court filing stated.

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Diamond Mills can legally accommodate 200  people in its dining room if they are there for a meal, but has been limited to just 50 people if the occasion is a wedding. The state has banned gatherings of more than 50 people for “nonessential” gatherings, including weddings.

While he understands that a wedding is substantially different from sitting and dining, Struzzieri said, “a wedding venue can impose rules. They [guests] can’t walk up to the bar and order a drink, They must order from a waiter.” He also would require safe distances between people and proper cleaning and disinfecting. 

“We try to offer families the opportunity to be together, but not all at the same table,” he said.

The lawsuit, on behalf of the plaintiffs, states: “Under the rules promulgated by Defendants  [Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York State agencies]  for food service facilities, Partition Street is able to provide restaurant service in the ballroom for 200 people and in the tavern for 88 people. However, under the same rules, Partition Street is prohibited from hosting a wedding gathering in excess of 50 people.”

Struzzieri said he was fortunate in that he can weather hard times because of his diverse businesses, based initially on horse shows. “I can deal with it [the limitations], but many can’t.”

A couple could have their wedding in a private house, and invite 200 people, Struzzieri noted, but they could not have that large a wedding in a banquet hall. “It’s a fine line between safety and commerce,” he said. “If you walked into Diamond Mills tonight, you could find 100 people eating.” 

Struzzieri said he was particularly incensed at a remark by the governor to the effect that people who didn’t use wedding venues were still married, “and look how much money you saved.”

“This is not funny when you’re dealing with people’s lives,” Struzzieri said. “We’re dealing with people’s livelihoods. He [Cuomo] isn’t taking less money, so why should people who cook, serve and wait on tables take less?”

In his conclusion, judge Scullin said he recognized the rapidly changing landscape as a result of the current health crisis. “The decision as to when to lift restrictions on particular social activities during a pandemic such as we face with Covid-19 is ever-changing and subject to reasonable disagreement.”

When it came to health and safety, “those decisions are undertaken in situations that are fraught with medical and scientific uncertainty. Unless those officials exceed these broad limits, the federal courts, which do not have the background, competence or expertise to gauge public health and are not accountable to the people, should not second-guess their decisions.” 

Scullin acknowledged the irony of a ruling that applies to the same business in different ways when it seems circumstances are similar. It may very well be that the regulations and restrictions the gubernatorial order places on venues that host social gatherings vis a vis restaurants could have been more equitable, he agreed, “but this is not the test that the court must apply when reviewing defendants’ decision.” Unless the decisions were arbitrary and unrelated to the current health emergency, they must stand, the judge ruled.