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Miller Place Inn

The Miller Place Inn has temporarily closed to weddings after receiving a call from the NYSLA. Photo from the Miller Place Inn

By Julianne Mosher and Kyle Barr

The well-known wedding and event venue Miller Place Inn has been issued a hefty fine for hosting an event that led to around 270 individuals having to quarantine across Long Island.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said Oct. 13 a notorious Sweet 16 party was hosted at the venue Sept. 25. The event involved 81 people, including 49 students and 32 adults, which is over the state-mandated limit. That party has now led to 334 people having been notified by the Suffolk County Department of Health for contact tracing. Of that number, 183 of those people were affiliated with schools, while 151 were non-school specific. The county executive said the people affected were spread throughout the county.

“It was the first time the health department has taken a course of action against a business.”

— Steve Bellone

The county DHS has identified 37 positive cases in connection to the Sweet 16 party, of which 29 of the positive cases were those who attended, seven were household contacts, and one case was a close contact of an individual who attended.

State law restricts all non essential gatherings to 50 or fewer people or 50 percent capacity, whichever one of those is less. 

“It was the first time the health department has taken a course of action against a business,” Bellone said on a conference call with reporters, citing that businesses before have largely complied with COVID restrictions when confronted by officials. The Inn has received previous warnings, he said.

The Inn was fined $10,000 for violations of the New York state executive orders, as well as $2,000 for violations of the Suffolk County sanitary code. The county exec said the determination that the Inn was at fault based on the “comprehensive contact tracing investigation.” Though he noted not everyone at the party was wearing masks, the primary violation was breaking the mass gathering rules.

Christopher Regina, a co-owner of the Inn, said in a phone interview after Bellone’s announcement that they were made aware Oct. 8 they were in violation of the guidelines. They thought they were allowed to operate at 50% of their fire marshal cap of 250 persons. He said, along with implementing air filtration measures, they were “operating safely” with less than 125.

“At no time before that did we know we were operating in the wrong,” he said.

On Friday, Oct. 9, the Inn announced it would be closing down after what they said was a warning call from the New York State Liquor Authority over reported COVID violations. Miller Place Inn owners Donna Regina, during an interview Friday, expressed that she was aware of “a group of teens [who] tested positive somewhere.”

“At no time before that did we know we were operating in the wrong.”

— Christopher Regina

The event has become notorious in the past few weeks, as the Sweet 16 was reported to have directly led to the Sachem school district having to temporarily shut down the high school.

Though the county executive said there is no dictionary definition for a so-called superspreader event, “Based on our experience in dealing with this pandemic for seven months now, this is a superspreader event without question.”

On Friday, a spokesperson from the New York State Liquor Authority told TBR News Media they had issued a warning to the Inn about complaints. A spokesperson for the SLA did not immediately respond to a request for comment over if they will take any action against the venue.

Bellone said that people need to be mindful of the consequences of mass gatherings so no more clusters pop up. 

“We need to make sure as we move into the colder weather, as we move towards winter, that we cannot have these types of activities that could cause a superspreader event like this,” he said. “We are entering a period of time where it is dangerous. We know as people move indoors they shut the windows, shut the doors and when inside that’s the real possibility for a second wave of cases happening.”

 

The Miller Place Inn has temporarily closed to weddings after receiving a call from the NYSLA. Photo from the Miller Place Inn

The Miller Place Inn has temporarily halted wedding operations as of Oct. 9 at their banquet hall due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Donna Regina, co-owner of the Miller Place Inn, said the decision to temporarily close came after a courtesy call they received from the SLA.

“[An official] said he has orders from Albany to go to venues on Long Island and close them down if they’re not in compliance,” she said. “As of yesterday, they added no cocktail hour and at that point, it’s not a wedding. It’s not what the bride paid for.”

She said the rules are constantly changing.

“The governor tightened the noose on us,” she said. “Our capacity is 250 … Why do we have to have 50 guests?”

William Crowley, a spokesperson for the SLA, said the office received a complaint about weddings in excess of 50 people, and that an official called to warn and advise of the need to retain the 50-person limit and ensure social distancing.

He added that he reminded them there is no dancing allowed, even with masks.

Those set for weddings as early as Saturday, Oct. 17 also received the news Friday.

Selena Rodriguez, a bride from Brooklyn who was set to get married next weekend at the venue, said she got a phone call Thursday night from the Inn, saying they were shut down by the New York State Liquor Authority.

Rodriguez was told she can only postpone her wedding, but earlier in discussions she made it clear that the wedding needed to happen by the end of 2020, as her and her fiancé are moving across the country. They were planning a wedding of 40 people, well under the state’s limit.

She said because she physically cannot postpone her event, the Inn would not refund her money.

“You can’t make me have an event that I’m not going to be here for,” she said.

This comes nearly a week after a rally was held outside the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge where venue owners, wedding industry professionals, brides and elected officials begged the governor to loosen the maximum cap.

Christopher Regina, fellow co-owner of the Miller Place Inn, said they decided Thursday to temporarily halt events inside their venue because of the state’s 50-person limit.

The immediate closure decision was a “conscious one,” Donna added, because “the rules were too much to handle.”

“We cannot operate under these restrictions,” Christopher said. “When a wedding venue cannot hold at least 50 percent capacity, it’s very, very, very hard.”

Rodriguez added that her contract was “bare bones” and did not mention any clauses regarding the venue closing at their own discretion. The original call she received made it sound like the venue was claiming all venues on the island were being moderated by the state.

“They told me they got shut down by the SLA and they’re shutting everything down on Long Island,” she said.

The Miller Place Inn wanted to be clear that his venue did not close its doors permanently or lose its liquor license.

“That’s absolutely not true,” Christopher said.

Donna said that the Inn reached out to all the brides scheduled to get married up until early December.

“We told them simply we would work with you, move your date, provide out-of-house catering… We bent over backward for each bride,” she said. “We understand the brides are hurt. Their dream wedding can’t happen if they cannot get out of their seats.”

She added that claim from brides that they could not get refunds is “not true.”

“Our lawyer advised us we’re not able to refund anything within six months,” she said. “But we never punished a bride, never, so we moved eight months’ worth of weddings not to punish our brides … Every bride and groom has our cell phone numbers, anyone who knows us knows we will answer our phones.”

Caterers across the state also have filed a class-action lawsuit against Governor Andrew Cuomo saying their businesses can be just as safe, if not safer. They argue that with many venues being able to hold more than 300 people, a 50 percent cap would still allow social distancing, with guests still being able to celebrate.

“Please talk to your local government and the people in Albany,” Christopher added. “They are the ones keeping us closed.”

Its plans to reopen fully are up in the air.

“When the government revokes the 50-person cap, but that’s up to them,” he said

The Miller Place Inn has temporarily closed to weddings after receiving a call from the NYSLA. Photo from the Miller Place Inn

Part two of two

While wedding vendors are hoping for a brighter future as New York continues to reopen in phases during the coronavirus pandemic, recovery will likely take a while. Currently, gatherings such as weddings are limited to 50 people, according to New York State press secretary Caitlin Girouard.

East Setauket native Stefanie Fisher and her fiancé, Bryan Costello, below, were set to marry in Maryland this summer but postponed the large reception and will get married at her parents’ Three Village home this month. Photo from Stefanie Fisher

“We are working on additional guidance for these types of events but as we have reiterated many times one of the best ways to prevent the spread is to always wear a mask when social distancing is not possible,” Girouard said in an email.

The shutdowns over the last few months have caused huge financial losses for businesses in the wedding industry. Among them is the Miller Place Inn, which was built in 1850 and has been a wedding site for around 100 years.

Donna Regina, co-owner of the family business, said the last time a wedding was hosted at the venue was back in March, and after months of being closed due to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) executive order that shut down businesses deemed nonessential, the staff is looking forward to a small 50-person wedding that is planned for the beginning of August.

“It’s been financially devastating to take five months’ worth of weddings off the books,” she said, adding that even without being opened they still had a $1,600 electric bill.

She said once wedding venues had to close the owners knew the calendar had to be immediately cleared for March and April. Soon after they began receiving calls from couples who had large weddings planned for May and June who wanted to postpone due to having relatives coming out of state or older family members who are more susceptible to the coronavirus. She said some events even had to be postponed a couple of  times.

While many have postponed their weddings until 2021, Regina said there are still some dates available for next year. Some couples have already held small ceremonies at home and decided to hold off just the reception.

“That’s the couple that’s going to have a better time because they are going to come to have a party, because the commitment, that they already made,” she said. “Whatever they want to do, we’re behind them.”

The Miller Place Inn co-owner said planning to reopen has been difficult with no firm guidelines yet for event venues from the state.

“It’s so frustrating,” she said. “We don’t know where to turn because there is no one or no website that has factual information.”

 “We don’t know where to turn because there is no one or no website that has factual information.”

— Donna Regina

Regina said the lack of guidelines can be frustrating as they don’t have enough information to guide couples. However, while many may worry about dancing at weddings, she said the Miller Place Inn has a large dance floor that will allow for social distancing. She added they are also incorporating more cleaning precautions, have installed UVC lighting and employees will be wearing face coverings and plastic gloves in addition to the cloth ones they already wear.

Photographer’s Perspective

Photographer Ron Denenberg, co-owner of Renaissance Studio Photography in Smithtown along with his wife, Liz, said the last time he remembers a large number of wedding postponements was after 9/11. The studio has been located on Main Street since 1979.

“This is the worst,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Denenberg said he believes it will be a whole different world with weddings in the near future as more couples are planning smaller, less structured parties.

“I don’t see people planning big, big weddings,” he said. “I think people are going to be afraid there will be a second wave.”

The photographer said other milestone events have also been negatively impacted by the shutdowns and COVID-19. One bar mitzvah in March with 300 guests that his photographers were scheduled to cover, with people coming from all over the world, had to be postponed until October. He said many have also taken plans for weddings and other events and modified them to smaller occasions. Like wedding venues, there hasn’t been much income coming in for photographers the last few months.

However, the photographer is staying optimistic. He said through the years he and his wife have thought outside of the box to keep up with trends and are looking to see what people want during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We want to stay in business,” he said. “We love the business.”

One Couple’s Solution

Among the 2020 brides who are tackling the challenges of wedding planning during a pandemic is Stefanie Fisher, who grew up in East Setauket and now lives in Maryland. She and her fiancé, Bryan Costello, were set to wed this summer at the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club in Maryland with about 175 people. While they decided to postpone the big reception until next year, they have planned a smaller ceremony with 26 people at Fisher’s parents’ home in East Setauket. Despite the day working out differently than expected, the bride-to-be said there are still things to look forward to with the couple’s new plan, especially since her parents always wanted her to get married at their house.

“Think about how you imagine your wedding, if that’s not possible right now, then wait until it is.”

— Stefanie Fisher

“I think it’s really special to be able to walk down the aisle in a place where I have so many wonderful memories over the years,” Fisher said. “I was excited to have all of our family and friends come down to Maryland for the wedding, but I’m especially excited to be married in an intimate setting at a place that means a lot to me. This DIY miniwedding has given us the chance to kind of put everyone to work to make it a special day.”

Fisher said her sister’s husband will officiate while her nephews will play the wedding march on keyboard and piano. Costello’s brother, who owns the Hicksville restaurant Peppercorns, will cater and her sister’s friend will be taking photos.

“It’s a wedding that everyone gets to feel they have a part in helping put together,” she said. “My parents’ neighbor even offered to chauffeur me from Danfords in his vintage Cadillac Eldorado. This unfortunate situation has had more silver linings than I would have thought and showed me how it really does take a village, and Bryan and I are so lucky to have such amazing people in our lives that are so excited to help make this day perfect. Our story isn’t what we expected but it’s more wonderful than we ever could have imagined.”

Fisher had advice for those who may need to change their ceremony and reception plans.

“Think about how you imagine your wedding, if that’s not possible right now, then wait until it is,” she said. “We all deserve to have the wedding we’ve dreamed about since we were little girls, but sometimes we just have to wait until the time is right. Look at your partner, is that person still your best friend? Do you still want to spend the rest of your life with  them? That’s not going to change whether you have your wedding in 2020 or 2021. You are lucky to have found your person and don’t lose sight of that being the most important part.”