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Risk health or lose money? Couples who booked wedding venues face choice amid pandemic

Engaged couples wrestle with whether to go ahead with weddings and endanger the health of loved ones — or postpone and risk losing thousands of dollars in deposits.
Fahmi Islam and his bride.
Fahmi Islam and his bride.Courtesy Bioscope Photography

Kristin McClure and Joshua Ferrell got engaged on Feb. 1 — at a time when the U.S. had just eight confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

The couple looked for a wedding venue, and on March 9, booked a 12,000-square-foot converted factory in Atlanta that features “pine beams, expansive skylights, and polished concrete floors,” according to its website.

But soon their excitement turned to worry.

Like many other engaged couples around the U.S., McClure and Ferrell have had to wrestle with whether to go ahead with wedding plans and put the health of family members and friends in danger — or postpone and risk losing thousands of dollars in deposits.

By mid-March, the coronavirus epidemic was raging in some parts of the country, and many states were about to issue shutdown orders.

In Georgia, where there was still a relatively small number of confirmed cases of the virus, McClure and Ferrell held out hope that by fall the worst of the pandemic would have subsided.

Then at the end of June and on the first days of July, Georgia reported record spikes in cases.

“At that point, we knew we had to go ahead and make the decision,” Ferrell said.

The couple reached out to their venue, The Foundry at Puritan Mill, and on July 2 was sent a copy of the company’s coronavirus policy, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News. It said: Any client who moved a 2020 event to either a Saturday in the first quarter of 2021, or to any Friday or Sunday throughout 2021, would lose their rental deposit. Clients who elected to postpone further out than the first quarter of 2021, would both lose their rental deposit and have to pay a $1,500 date-change fee.

At that time, Georgia had more than 87,000 confirmed coronavirus cases with over 2,800 deaths.

The next day, Ferrell and McClure, who had been laid off from her marketing job, emailed the president of Novare Events, the venue operator, to ask about postponing their 200-person wedding and reception, for which they had paid deposits of $6,500 for the rental and $5,000 for beverages.

The couple wrote that they, their family and friends are African American — a demographic disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus.

The president, Myrna Antar, responded, “I would like nothing more than to be able to allow all of our clients to move 100% of their deposits to a date in 2021 but that’s just not economically feasible.”

She offered to make an exception to the company’s policy and apply Ferrell’s $6,500 deposit toward a new date in 2021 and to waive the $1,500 date-change fee, which meant he would lose his $5,000 beverage deposit.

“Again, this is a devastating time for all of us and we are really trying to be fair to all our clients and work with everyone any way we can,” Antar wrote.

Kristin McClure and Joshua Ferrell.
Kristin McClure and Joshua Ferrell.Courtesy Joshua Ferrell

Ferrell, 26, who works as a recruiter, argued against these terms, citing “ethical” concerns and “force majeure,” a common contractual provision that excuses either party from fulfilling its obligation due to uncontrollable events, such as extreme weather or other “acts of God.”

He noted in a July 13 email to an account executive at the wedding hall that “in the past week there have been over 1,000 confirmed cases within 25 miles of your venue.”

The account executive said force majeure language did not apply.

“Your event is not scheduled until September,” she wrote. “At this time, Novare is open, and able to host your event.”

Venues as well as their prospective renters have invoked force majeure during the pandemic in attempts to renegotiate or cancel contracts, said Natalya Johnson, an attorney in New Jersey who has negotiated event contracts for clients ranging from nonprofit organizations to Fortune 500 companies.

When state stay-at-home orders were first instituted, Johnson said she saw a lot of flexibility from venues, including in “allowing people to postpone or reschedule their events.”

Months into the pandemic, however, she said she sees many venues that “have become increasingly stringent.”

Antar told NBC News on Thursday that companies like hers have been hurt by the pandemic.

Her firm has had more than 600 events either cancel or reschedule due to the coronavirus, but rent, utilities and other expenses at the company’s six venues are due each month whether they have events or not, she said.

Novare Events received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, but it covered less than two months of rent and payroll, she said.

“We believe that we have been as fair to all of our clients as possible, while working to keep our small team of less than 20 employed and our company in operation,” Antar said.

Antar said, however, that “based on the escalation of COVID-19 cases in Atlanta,” the company revised its policy from the one sent to Ferrell and McClure early this month. Under the new terms, people contracted to rent a venue would lose less money if they cancel or change the date.

Two days later, in a statement Saturday, Antar said that with coronavirus cases in the state continuing to rise, the policy was further changed “to now allow any clients booked for 2020 to change their date with no fee.” She said the company is constantly adjusting its policies to adapt to the new environment.

Prior to Antar's relaying these policy changes to NBC News, Ferrell and McClure had reluctantly agreed to earlier revised terms with the venue and rescheduled their wedding and reception to Sept. 5, 2021, although it meant they would have to pay an extra $5,000, Ferrell said.

“We’re at the point where we just have to give in,” Ferrell said Wednesday.

On Saturday night, Ferrell said he had yet to speak to Antar about the policy change.

What bride would want to put her father 'in danger'?

Another couple who planned to wed in the summer at a venue in rural, southern New Jersey said that they began inquiring in May about postponing their wedding.

But, the options they were given were slim: Reschedule for some time in 2022. Marry on a Wednesday in 2020 or 2021, rather than on a weekend as they preferred. Or keep their original 2020 date.

The bride-to-be said she made clear to the venue owner that her father’s health could make him vulnerable to the virus, and that most of their wedding guests would be from out of state, including from areas with high coronavirus rates. New Jersey currently requires visitors from certain states to quarantine for two weeks.

“What bride, if she’s privileged enough to have a good relationship with her father and a father that is still in her life, would ever want to plan a wedding that might put him in danger?” she said.

After months of back-and-forth with the venue and under the condition that they sign a nondisclosure agreement, the couple, who asked that their names be withheld in this article, won agreement in July to have their deposit refunded.

While the bride-to-be said she is grateful she will be refunded, she said she has been in touch with other couples with similar frustrations with this venue and believes the site operator expected that people trying to change or cancel an event might give up and forfeit their down payments.

The venue “has chosen to put all the previously booked couples impacted by COVID-19 between a rock and a hard place so that we'll walk away from our deposits and they get a year's worth of free money,” she said.

'You can’t tell me what I can and cannot do for my own reception'

A groom in Michigan also encountered what he considered to be inflexibility by his wedding venue amid a historic pandemic.

Fahmi Islam, 31, an elementary school dean from Sterling Heights, about 20 miles from Detroit, and his wife, a dental assistant who did not wish to be named, were married last year but were planning a 750-person reception on June 28.

The couple are Bangladeshi American, and he said such large wedding receptions are common in their culture.

Islam reserved the venue in September 2019 with a $1,000 deposit.

On June 22, he emailed the banquet hall’s management that in light of the Michigan governor’s order restricting indoor dining to 50-percent capacity, the venue could not accommodate his planned reception and he wanted a refund. He indicated in the email that he had already spoken by phone with a manager from the hall about his concerns.

Islam also said in the email that he was not willing to postpone his event to 2021 because it was unclear when the pandemic will end.

The venue, The Imperial House, responded that he could have the reception with fewer guests or pick a future date, and that he could apply his deposit to an event for himself or a relative to occur within 12 months.

“Should you decide to cancel completely then deposits are non-refundable,” the email stated.

Islam said he found the venue’s suggestion that he hold the reception with fewer guests appalling. “You can’t tell me what I can and cannot do for my own reception,” he said.

The Imperial House, which has a capacity of more than 1,000 people, told NBC News on Thursday that Islam was aware when the hall reopened June 8 at 50 percent capacity that it could under the state order accommodate up to 540 guests.

“Many options were given so that they didn’t have to forfeit the deposit,” the venue said. “The clients chose to cancel; and the deposit in the end is forfeited in this case.”

The banquet hall added, “We are a family-owned and family-run business and like all small businesses, have a lot going on and trying to stay afloat ... It’s an unfortunate time for all, however we have been and are doing the best we can."

Islam said he still wants his money back because the venue could not meet the terms of the contract on the date his reception was to take place.

“It’s a small amount. It’s not about the money,” he said. “It’s about the principle itself. There are other couples who can use that money for something else.”