MANHATTAN (CN) — On the same day that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced wedding receptions can resume, a panel of Second Circuit judges wondered why they were hearing a case from last summer in which a wedding was canceled due to Covid-19.
Cuomo announced Friday that indoor dining could resume at 25% capacity starting on Valentine’s Day and that on March 15 wedding receptions with no more than 150 people and at 50% capacity will be possible.
“As data on infection rates and hospitalizations continue to improve, we must being taking steps to jumpstart our economic recovery as long as public health can be protected,” Cuomo said in a statement.
Last summer, however, several weddings had to be canceled or postponed due to the state’s limitations on reception venues being no more than 25% capacity. Wedding guests who violated the policy faced up to $1,000 in fines and criminal prosecution.
Around that time, two couples from upstate New York and a Christian minister filed suit, claiming the cap on religious weddings stood in contrast to other closely packed gatherings, such as thousands of people protesting the wrongful death of George Floyd.
The complaint went further: “Indeed, considering the lack of any ‘spike’ in Covid-19 cases following the George Floyd protests and other mass gatherings, the science behind social distancing has been called into question, and is flawed at best.”
This syllogism, of course, conflates protests that were outdoors and where mask usage was prevalent with indoor gatherings, the science around which has only grown stronger as the pandemic has endured.
U.S. District Judge Glenn Suddaby ultimately granted the challengers an injunction, calling the state’s 50-person limit for weddings “impermissibly arbitrary” given that restaurants at the time were already allowed to operate at 50% capacity
Suddaby, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, noted “there is no discernable rational reason for limiting a wedding use of the venues to only 50 individuals when the individuals present at the wedding would be required to abide by the same safety rules applicable to ordinary diners, such as limiting the number of people at each table, requiring people to stay at their tables … requiring people to wear masks when not at their table, and prohibiting dancing, among other things.”
His ruling came down on Aug. 7 — the same date that one of the couples who brought the suit had hoped to host their wedding reception at Arrowhead Golf Club in Akron, New York. While that ceremony was held, the other, scheduled for August 22, was eventually canceled.
And therein lies the rub for both sides.
During oral arguments on Friday before the three-judge panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch essentially balked at why the Second Circuit was hearing the case at all. After all, Lynch reasoned, since one wedding was held and another canceled, there was no controversy anymore, particularly since the ruling was nonprecedential.
“It doesn’t set any precedent at all, it’s just a single district court judge,” said Lynch, who is a Clinton appointee. “There are lots of things that judges say that the state of New York might disagree with or not like, that doesn’t give us the jurisdiction to review it.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston also briefly wondered about standing for the case, and the third panelist, U.S. Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes, did not ask any questions during oral arguments.
Attorney Frederick Brodie, who represents the state, said New York officials had very good reasons to limit weddings more than restaurant dining, since wedding receptions are viewed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as superspreader events for Covid-19.
There is singing, dancing and shouting at weddings, Brodie argued, and guests often stay much longer and in much more of an intimate setting than at dinner. Further, only 23 of the 175 wedding guests who had planned to attend the August 22 wedding had promised to abide by social-distancing and mask-wearing guidelines.
“The guests will stay together in the same room, breathing the same air, interacting with each other for hours,” Brodie said. “There is a high risk of irreparable harm if New York is enjoined from enforcing gathering restrictions.”
Brodie also underscored the state 4.4% current positivity rate, which is trending downward.
“If the district court precedent stays in effect, then anybody can come forward to again frustrate New York’s attempts,” Brodie said.
Representing the plaintiffs, however, Rupp Baase attorney R. Anthony Rupp III argued that the state’s appeal mooted the case by bringing the dispute beyond the August 22 deadline.
Rupp insisted that the injunction applied only to that day and venue, but both Brodie and Lynch noted that the plaintiffs could hold a wedding the very next day if the injunction were kept in place.
“We didn’t sue for subsequent or rescheduled dates,” Rupp countered.
Once again, though, Lynch seemed to think the case was a waste of time. “If there is no controversy anymore, there is no case anymore,” the judge argued, noting the injunction was tied to the specific complaint. “It is not just the appeal that’s moot; it's the entire litigation that’s moot.”
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