ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Jeff and Vanessa Whalen met seven years ago, and planned their wedding for a whole year.
They both agreed upon the Wintergarden in downtown Rochester, signing a contract in February for an August 29 wedding.
“It was gorgeous inside, so we put the deposit down. Then COVID hit,” Jeff said.
Jeff says everyone was constantly in touch, asking about new restrictions and the like. They eventually paid for the wedding in full, over $27,000. Jeff says they were told, even with new COVID restrictions, their 150 guests, later raised to 170, were all still good to go.
“We think (Wintergarden) misinterpreted Cuomo’s rule about the 50% occupancy,” Jeff said.
In documents provided to News 8 from the couple, it shows an email dated July 7 from a venue employee saying the facility is “at a 50% capacity, which is 300 people as our max is 600.” They also provided the couple a chance to re-schedule the wedding if needed.
On March 7, 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo put out an Executive Order on non-essential gatherings, saying groups of 50 or fewer, that do not exceed 50% of the maximum indoor occupancy, can take place. That is provided that location is in a region that has reached Phase 4 of the State’s reopening. In the order, it says this was to be in-place until July 26.
Even in Phase 4, non-essential gatherings have stayed at a 50 or less count.
In later emails, the couple says it shows the facility still planning the Whalen’s full wedding up until August 20, asking for final counts on food orders. Those tallies being 79 for beef, 21 for chicken and an unspecified amount for vegetarian options.
The couple says three days before the wedding, on August 26, they were told they could only pick 50 guests, with 170 family and friends already on their way or in town. Frustrated, the couple asked for a full refund. But they say there was a catch: New contracts.
“It would have put us liable to get sued if any one of our friends or family had talked about (this),” says Jeff, adding he can’t control what his wedding guests would say about Wintergarden. Jeff and Vanessa say they’ve asked all to refrain from any negative comments on social media.
This case is now in court. After speaking with Wintergarden several times over the phone and via email, they issued the following statement:
“During the course of the COVID 19 pandemic, The Wintergarden by Monroe’s has endeavored to comply with the everchanging rules, regulations and court decisions governing weddings and social gatherings. Unfortunately, and despite The Wintergarden by Monroe’s encouragement, Ms. Alvarez and Mr. Whalen refused to change their August 29, 2020 reception. When it became clear that the wedding reception would violate a recent court order issued by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, The Wintergarden by Monroe’s advised Ms. Alvarez and Mr. Whalen that the wedding could not go forward as planned. The Wintergarden by Monroe’s offered to refund the couple’s funds, but the Whalens threatened to use the media and social media. To protect The Wintergarden by Monroe’s from the Whalen’s threats, we requested that all the parties agree not to disparage each other. Unfortunately, to date, they refused to sign the proposed agreement.”Kathy Mott, Wintergarden
“A lot of different kinds of companies are dealing with this issue,” says attorney David Sieling, providing some insight.
Sieling is not involved in this case, but he says the Whalen’s, and the Winter Garden, are not alone in all of this. When the government stepped in and took charge, it might have caused confusion along the way.
“These contracts have technically been terminated by government action. They cannot be performed,” says Sieling.
He says if an agreed-upon number of guests is cut from something like 150 to 50, then the arrangement is no good. “Inability to perform doesn’t breach a contract, it terminates the contract,” says Sieling.
Sieling says there should be no reason to sign any subsequent agreements, like the NDAs to get money back.
The couple has since been married at a separate service. They say they hold out hope their payment will return soon. “I just personally think (they) don’t have money to give back to us,” says Vanessa.
“The key point to remember is that they are the professionals in their industry. We relied upon their guidance and assurances that we could have 170 guests. They clearly misinterpreted the government mandate right up to the call the call three days before the wedding indicating otherwise,” says Jeff’s father, Jim Whalen.