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Jan. 17, 2022 | Monday
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What's the limit?: Ambiguity in COVID reopening plan leaves wedding vendor confused
Alexander Woo and Amanda Sutton weren’t able to send invitations to more than 100 people due to confusion over outdoor event limits. (Richard Harley)

Anne Just wasn't quite sure whether she's allowed to have 100 people or 225 people attend her wedding events.

On one hand, Step 3 of the province's reopening plan says social gatherings are capped at 100 people.

However, further into the document, it says outdoor gatherings for meeting and event spaces, as well as food or drink establishments with dance facilities, are permitted to have 75 per cent capacity, or 5,000 people (whichever is less).

Just has been seeking clarification from the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake on the issue since Ontario moved to Step 2 at the end of June. Those rules also had contradictions that made it difficult to understand.

She describes the issue as a "quagmire" of poor interpretations of ambiguous legislation, which has harmed the business and clients of Kurtz Orchards Weddings on the Niagara Parkway.

The issue seems to have been cleared up as of Tuesday after inquiries by The Lake Report –  the town is now allowing 75 per cent capacity. But Just said the town still hasn't responded to her inquiries, though it did get back to some of her clients.

In response to questions from The Lake Report, the town's director of community development, Craig Larmour, said Just is allowed to operate her outdoor venue at 75 per cent capacity.

"If a social gathering associated with a wedding is convened at 'a meeting or event space, including a conference centre or convention centre' (eg. a facility zoned for such use), capacity is limited to 50 per cent indoor or 75 per cent outdoor. For 225 people to be accommodated indoor, the capacity would need to be established at 450. For 225 people to be accommodated outdoor, the capacity would need to be established at 300," Larmour said.

However, Just said the town originally told her that it was interpreting the reopening legislature to mean she can't have more than 100 people. That's when she pointed out that she is technically an event space, as the town requires her to get event permits.

"For every wedding I have, I'm required to have a special event and occasion permit. The irony of it," Just said.

She said the confusion over the issue has caused problems for families looking to book weddings without knowing how many people they can invite.

"It's unfair because people have withheld, you can imagine, their invitations. They're one month out, they're three weeks out, they're two weeks out, in the hope that there is a formal answer from the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake that they can invite more family and friends as they would wish to."

It also has taken a toll on wedding vendors themselves, as they struggle to catch up with an already shortened season due to lockdowns.

Amanda Sutton, who is set to have her wedding at Kurtz Orchards on Sept. 25, said the confusion has been a struggle for her and her partner Alexander Woo.

Faced already with the pandemic, the couple has pushed their wedding date back three times.

"We specifically rebooked to an outdoor venue, knowing that rules for those venues were a little bit more lenient than indoor venues," said Sutton. "Basically, it's just really frustrating, because if we were getting married anywhere else, we could have all of our friends and family there."

Adding to the frustration, she said, is that NOTL is a known wedding destination. She said she suspects the town's policies could impact future business for wedding venue operators.

Sutton said she thinks wedding businesses should interpret the rules based on the province's guidelines, rather than the municipality's.

"That would be great for us, obviously as clients and getting to have the wedding that we want," she said, but understands why Just might have been hesitant if the town had a different interpretation.

"But then again, if the legislation says 75 per cent capacity and that's the rules Ontario has put in place, then it should apply across the board to everyone in Ontario."

With the date of her wedding approaching, she said she's still only been able to send out 100 invitations.

"It depends how much longer that we have to keep waiting until it gets insulting to invite people like one week out — which I guess we can't even do, because the venue needs to know at least three weeks out for their numbers and their own planning. So we're getting down to the wire."

She said a friend who is getting married Sept. 4 has 260 people coming.

Sutton said she also feels for business owners like Just, who are losing money and could be getting a bad rep as a result of the confusion.

"We had a long talk with (Just) about how it hurts her too because, she can have 100, that's great, but if they can have 200 or 260, that increases the money she can make exponentially off food and beverage obviously," she said. "So anyone else who's obeying the rules are getting hurt too."

Just feels she may be in the "minority" of similar businesses, some of which she suspects have been interpreting the rules differently and allowing 75 per cent capacity without double-checking.

But with the confusion, Just said she wanted to make sure she was doing the right thing.

During Step 2 of reopening, she put similar questions to the town about whether she was allowed 25 people or 25 per cent capacity. An email to Coun. Wendy Cheropita provided a different answer than the town's official stance.

Cheropita asked Vintage Inns how they were handling their weddings and found they were allowing 25 per cent capacity per the reopening plan. However, the town responded that Just was to cap events at 25.

The same problem translated into Step 3 opening guidelines.

She said the town hasn't responded to her with a clarification after seeking answers, but that the town did acknowledge the events limit to one of her clients.

While Just said she doesn't necessarily blame the town, she said she thinks the confusion is a result of so many changes happening so fast.

"I think you are dealing with a body of staff that is quite frankly not used to moving at this pace, whether it's at the legislative level of Ontario, or municipal," she said.

And while she sympathizes with staff, she said businesses need answers quickly, especially when a six-month wedding season has already been cut in half.

As of Monday, she said she was stuck in a sort of limbo, awaiting an official response.

Other operators, she suspects, are moving forward without waiting, creating a further imbalance for businesses who are trying to ensure they're doing the right thing.

"That is my impression through some of our vendors that I might be in the minority of asking for official interpretation," she said.

But taking a risk on interpretation could come with a hefty cost, she said, with large fines looming for businesses that violate COVID reopening protocols.

"There's a significant punishment," she said. "I think it was $100,000 for the venue, $850 per person for every person that wasn't supposed to be there. So, it raised a big red flag."