A federal judge in Syracuse has enjoined the State of New York from enforcing a Covid-19 crowd restriction that prohibits 50-person "non-essential" public gatherings, including weddings. The Court rules that this restriction may violate the Constitution because other similarly-sized gatherings are legal, and the state cannot justify this distinction. The case is limited to weddings that take place in restaurants, and it does not allow all weddings to proceed.
The case is DiMartile v. Cuomo, issued by Judge Suddaby on August 7. This is the second Northern District ruling that strikes down a Covid-19 crowd restriction on constitutional grounds. Plaintiffs argued that the 50-person restriction is selective because the state allowed other crowds for mass demonstrations, outdoor graduation ceremonies, and indoor special education classes. Plaintiffs framed the issue as a religious freedom, free speech, and equal protection claim.
Since the lawsuit was filed in 2020, and there has been no discovery, plaintiffs seek a preliminary injunction, which the court cannot grant unless plaintiffs demonstrate a "likelihood of success on the merits" and irreparable harm without an immediate ruling. In other words, a preliminary injunction allows the plaintiff to win the case right away, but only if the case is compelling. Some judges will hold an emergency evidentiary hearing on the issues before issuing such a ruling, but Judge Suddaby resolved this case on the papers, focusing solely on the equal protection claim.
The court rules in plaintiffs' favor because "the State has failed to adequately rebut Plaintiffs' argument that a 50-person limit on a social gathering is not consistent with Defendants' allowance of exemptions to the 50-person gathering restriction for activities such as dining at restaurants and participating in graduation ceremonies." The judge finds that a wedding (prohibited) is not unlike dining in a restaurant (permitted), and plaintiffs say the wedding will have appropriate health and safety measures, such as mask-wearing and social distancing. Since there is no rational basis to distinguish between weddings and restaurant gatherings, the wedding prohibition violates the Equal Protection Clause.
The Court notes that it is not suggesting that any wedding (such as the typical wedding that predated Covid-19) is sufficiently similar to the typical dining experience that all weddings should be allowed to proceed in any manner. This case is unique, the Court says, because "the Plaintiffs' chosen venues are already operating as functioning restaurants in addition to wedding venues and thus the unequal treatment is happening as a result of two different uses of the same venue." What the Court is doing is ruling that "a wedding that follows all the same rules that would be applicable to the given venue for dining when that venue is operating as a restaurant should not be treated differently than a restaurant."