GRAND RAPIDS — Owners of indoor event centers are pushing state officials for expanded capacity limitations and a clearer reopening timeline as key COVID-19 metrics continue to decline and vaccines become more widely available.
West Michigan-based venue owners — along with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce — are leading a statewide effort asking state officials for “immediate guidance” on reopening event venues.
Current Michigan Department of Health and Human Services guidelines prohibit indoor weddings if they exceed a total of 25 people — a restriction event venues “can not survive,” Bing Goei, CEO of Eastern Floral and the Goei Center, said at a press conference in Grand Rapids Monday.
Outdoor weddings can include up to 300 people, according to state guidance on a March 5 pandemic order loosening restrictions at various sites. If an event has indoor and outdoor components, though, “it must abide by the requirements for an indoor gathering,” according to the state. The state guidance applies to “weddings, conferences, or other social gatherings at non-residential venues.”
Goei is advocating for venues to be able to reopen at a 50 percent capacity for indoor events, similar to current COVID-19 restrictions for other venues and restaurants. Indoor trade shows and exhibitions are also allowed at 50 percent capacity if no food service or entertainment is involved.
Operating at 50 percent capacity “may not allow our industry to be profitable, but it will certainly allow us to bring back our employees and cover most of our fixed expenses,” Goei said.
He added that the limitation on wedding events — an industry with a higher percentage of women employees — continues to disproportionately affect women workers during the pandemic.
“This pandemic has hurt women and minorities the most,” Goei said. “We want to make sure we are allowed to be able to give those employment opportunities again in our event industry.”
Under the state’s 25-person capacity restriction, the Goei Center is only able to operate its venue at 6.25 percent of its capacity, Goei said. If a 50-percent capacity restriction were in place, the facility could hold events with up to 200 people, Goei said.
“We know, and all the event venues know, how to do our business safely. We just want to make sure we have the opportunity to do that,” Goei said.
The Grand Rapids Chamber — along with 11 other chamber of commerce groups across Michigan and the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association — signed a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asking for “more reasonable restrictions based on a capacity formula and other accepted standards similar to other industries,” according to the joint letter.
“We are the forgotten industry of the pandemic and we are eager to return to our craft,” said Kim Smith, president of The Catering Co. in Grand Rapids.
The Catering Co.’s business was down 93.6 percent in 2020, and its staff of 48 people is down to 12 employees including herself, Smith said.
Smith said she has done everything she can to keep her business afloat throughout the last year and into 2021, including spending thousands on safety equipment.
“As the weeks and months passed, event venues were not mentioned in the Safe Start program,” Smith said. “It was disheartening that there was no communication or transparency in regard to a reopening plan.”
Smith said a target date and timeline is needed for the event industry to recruit, hire and train staff and prepare to reopen safely.
“We know that opening this industry does take time,” Smith said. “The industry can’t just open and pick up where we left off at the drop of a hat.”
“We can’t go on any longer,” said Doug Small, president and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids, adding that COVID-19 restrictions on event venues have become “ridiculous.”