When you walk outside on a Saturday afternoon in the spring and see the sun shining, what’s the first thing you notice? Is it the sound of the birds in the trees providing background music to a beautiful day? Is it the flowers in bloom or the colors they bring?
For Paul Storti, the co-owner of the Quonset “O” Club in North Kingstown, the sight is one that always brings to mind a sense of comfort.
For more than 45 years, he’s looked forward to these types of days as proof that winter is finally over and it’s time for him and his family to get to work welcoming couples from across the region to their property for weddings, anniversaries, bridal showers, sports banquets and other major life events.
Last Saturday, the Quonset “O” Club looked like it does on any spring afternoon. The sun was out. The bar was clean. The tables were set up.
But there was one thing missing: A reason to celebrate.
As Rhode Island quickly approaches a second month of a near complete and total economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Paul and his wife Charlene can’t help but lament what they and their clients have lost so far and wonder when, if ever, they’ll be able to fully open their doors once again.
“This is not how we’d typically spend a Saturday after Easter, that’s for sure,” Paul Storti said over the phone last weekend. “We had this conversation when we went to work today, we said ‘Boy, it’s beautiful out.’ You’d never know we’re going through this.”
They’re not alone.
All across Southern Rhode Island, wedding and event venues remain shuttered indefinitely and for the business owners and event coordinators running them, there’s no simple answer to an unending stream of questions on when some semblance of a ‘new normal’ will arrive.
A sudden stop
A ‘new normal’ is the phrase Storti keeps coming back to when asked how the “O” Club is faring. It’s an expression Governor Raimondo has used many times in her daily press conferences to describe what life will be like when this pandemic is over and restrictions on local businesses, and life in general, ease up.
In truth, nothing about this is normal.
In a typical year, the Quonset “O” Club would be in the middle of one of its busiest times of the year and the Stortis would right in the thick of things keeping the events they host running like clockwork.
In addition to weddings nearly every weekend from April through October, the venue has been a go-to spot for several spring-based events for generations.
Local high schools host their annual sports banquets on the property. Small businesses and non-profit organization plan their biggest celebrations and awards receptions at the site. And weddings? It would be near impossible for the Stortis to guess how many local brides have followed in their parents or grandparent’s footsteps and said “I do” at the property.
But not this year. Not yet anyway.
The Stortis have shut down the “O” Club since March 8 and while they’ve gotten “some help” from the various government programs meant to tide local businesses over during the coronavirus pandemic, their unique situation as strictly a banquet facility that doesn’t function the way a regular restaurant might – they don’t offer takeout, for example – means financial assistance isn’t easy to come by.
They have a staff that includes three full-time employees and 15 part-time employees. In addition, the pair hire additional help seasonably as business picks up. But they can’t do that yet. Not with an empty calendar.
“For us, it’s kind of difficult because we have no functions, no reason to pay our help to come in,” Paul Storti said. “There’s nothing they would do. It’s not like our revenue has decreased during this, our revenue is at zero.”
For the Stortis, the uncertainty of when they can return to business is almost worse than the actual financial losses incurred thus far. While they’re still paying for the costs of running their business—which has roughly $30,000 a year in property taxes as well as fixed costs for expenses like insurance and utilities—they have no way of knowing when they can resume long-planned events.
Will it be the spring? Unlikely. The summer? Maybe. The fall? Hard to tell.
Gov. Raimondo unveiled her “Reopening Rhode Island” guidelines earlier this week that chart the course for how state officials see restrictions being eased.
The first phase, titled “Testing the Water,” gave guidance on how the state intends to open some parks, allow elective medical procedures and pilot expanded options for local restaurants.
But there was no plan presented for larger events and neither of the other two phases had specifics either.
Weddings, in particular, are a murky mess. The events are a huge part of the “O” Club’s business and, in many ways, the toughest thing to plan for moving forward as the governor and state officials have made clear large social functions will likely be one of the last things brought back in the gradual reopening of Rhode Island, which Raimondo has said she hopes to begin on May 8 when her stay-at-home order is set to expire.
“They’ve all rescheduled,” Charlene said of her clients with spring wedding dates planned. “No one has canceled their wedding but they’ve postponed it.”
“Everyone in April, May, June, July and now we’re getting into August,” Paul said of postponements. “They are really starting to push out. Some have already gone into next year as well. It’s difficult but, you know, everybody is doing it. You have to get through it. It’s like a snowstorm. It’s like a three-month snowstorm.”
Holding out hope
The Stortis are not the only ones unsure of what to tell brides and grooms with wedding days fast approaching. Roughly 20 miles south of that North Kingstown property, Daisy MacLeod is in the same boat.
As the coordinator for both Kinney Bungalow and the North Beach Clubhouse, two of the smaller but busiest wedding venues in Southern Rhode Island, MacLeod has been spent months working with 2020 couples to plan their big day.
The two properties are owned and operated by the town of Narragansett but couples regularly rent out space for events ranging from 50-200 people. MacLeod and Narragansett Town Manager James Tierney made the decision at the start of the pandemic to cancel all events through the end of April. A few weeks ago, they extended that order to any events planned through May 10.
Now? Well, now they’re taking it a day at a time.
“It’s definitely challenging,” MacLeod said. “We’ve done so through May 10th and we’re hesitant to postpone or cancel anything else too soon because we’re waiting on that update on May 8th from the governor in hopes that we’ll have some more insight. It’s tough because people have things scheduled for the following weekend, the 15th, the 16th, the 17th. Quite a few have opted to reschedule but there are a few people from the end of May who are hanging on to see what happens.”
Because weddings in particular involve so many moving parts, MacLeod said, the decision to cancel or postpone is a lot more difficult.
Couples at Kinney Bungalow and the North Beach Clubhouse often contract outside vendors for every component of their wedding day and finding a date that works for everyone who is already booked is near impossible, especially with most prime 2020 slots booked well in advance and many 2021 dates already scooped up.
In addition, most couples have friends and family traveling from all over to attend. With a vaccine still a year away according to many health experts, there are no clear guidelines as to when travel restrictions may ease. As it is right now, anyone entering Rhode Island from out of state is advised to quarantine by themselves for two weeks.
“A majority of the conversation that I’ve been having with these couples is that maybe it’s too soon for us to cancel or postpone but they want to,” MacLeod said. “The biggest thing that they’re facing is some of them have guests who are a little bit older and they don’t want to put them in a weird position and then other couples are expressing that their guests have reached out and said that they don’t feel comfortable traveling. That’s unfortunate for couples. They want to share their special day with everyone and if their guest list starts to dwindle down to not much, it’s almost like maybe it makes more sense to postpone.”
MacLeod has taken an aggressive approach to try to keep her couples happy. Not only does she put together weekly email updates, she does her best to hold multiple new dates for her brides and grooms while they work on rescheduling their events and, if rescheduling isn’t possible, making cancellation as easy as possible.
“It’s definitely sad,” MacLeod said. “I can hear it in people’s voices that they’re bummed out but they understand it’s sort of out of everyone’s hands.”
The future is unclear
Both MacLeod and the Stortis are doing their best to stay positive but admit it’s tough to do so when interacting with couples who feeling the stress of uncertainty as they plan one of the biggest days of their lives.
“Honestly, it’s not something that I’ve dealt with before,” MacLeod said. “I’ve been in this position for five years now and here and there cancellations come up and reschedulings happen for whatever reason but this obviously is a pandemic and it’s affecting so many people.”
MacLeod said her approach is to remind couples that even if they can’t have the big wedding they always dreamed of, or even the smaller, more intimate affair, at the end of the day all that matters is that they have each other.
“I try to remind everyone in as nice a way as possible that we’re all sort of in the same boat one way or another,” MacLeod said. “If you can’t have the huge party it’s definitely a disappointment but similar to when it’s raining on somebody’s wedding day, I try to say ‘Hey, you’re still getting married.’ The end goal is still going to be reached.”
The Stortis are taking that same approach. Adaptability, Paul Storti says, is key and when the state says they can get back to business, they will.
“If they turn it on, they’re not going to turn it on overnight,” he said. “They’re going to give you I’m sure five days to a week and in that time we can order from our vendors because being a banquet facility – and strictly a banquet facility, not open as a restaurant – we order for each individual event.”
Storti says his preference would be a limited, trial opening where the “O” Club can host events but function at “50 percent” of its capacity, rather than waiting until everything is over to get back to work.
Either way, he promises his family isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.
“I’ve done it for 45 years,” he said. “I’m looking to have my son take over. I just don’t want to give up. I just don’t. It would be easy to say I’m just going to fold it up but I don’t want to do that. I’ve got too much time invested. My family was invested for so long. I just don’t have the heart to do it.”