PHOENIX – Arizona caterer Pat Christofolo has been orchestrating high-end events for over a quarter-century: A lavish spread for a wedding dinner back-dropped by red rocks in Sedona, a holiday party for 1,000 in an airplane hangar, mezcal cocktails under the desert sky.
But all the events she was scheduled to host this spring have been cancelled as fallout from the coronavirus steamrolls the U.S. events planning industry, from a California firm that rents out Ferris wheels to a company that offers big tents in New York. Now, they are being forced to adapt and hope they survive.
“It has been complete devastation across the industry,” said Christofolo, who owns Artisan by Santa Barbara Catering, as well as The Farm at South Mountain, a Phoenix wedding venue that boasts a trio of popular farm-to-table restaurants. She's been forced to trim her staff from the spring seasonal high of 150 people to just a few.
Social distancing and stay at home mandates have shut down events across the United States and around the world as people strive to limit contact with others and slow the pandemic. The events industry, which exists to bring people together, has been hit particularly hard.
Some event planning and rental companies are trying to find creative uses for their equipment and services as they undertake the onerous process of applying for federal assistance, begging banks for loan extensions and quarreling with insurance companies. For many it's becoming increasingly difficult to survive with no firm end in sight to the social clampdown.
"Caterers are used to ups and downs, but there will be a fair number of companies that won’t make it through this,” said Paula Kreuzburg, executive director of the 1,200-member International Caterers Association in Baltimore.
Christofolo has adjusted by keeping two of her three restaurants open for takeout and selling produce boxes. Another company is renting big tents to hospitals.
“The hospital work has been our saving grace,” said Sean McCarthy of McCarthy’s Tents & Events in Rochester, New York. ”It’s allowed me to keep a skeleton crew working.”
McCarthy is renting tents for use for intake, triage and drive-thru testing. Tents supplied by some other companies are being used as morgues.
Kevin Godycki, vice president of Dolphin Event Services in Pasadena, California, said the pandemic “has taken the rug right out from under us with no parties, no public gatherings,” prompting his company to start bidding on government contracts for its tents ranging up to 30,000 square feet.
“We're all going to be hungry for work by the time September and October arrive,” Godycki said.
Some companies have few alternatives for generating new business. There's not much that can be done these days with bouncy houses and ponies for kiddie rides, or stacks of rental chairs for graduations and Bar Mitzvahs.
“We had an Easter weekend to die for,” Jennifer Roberts of Party Pronto in Arcadia, California, said of the mid-April weekend that had been packed with events until the coronavirus struck. “Are they going to want the Easter Bunny in August? Of course not. And if people cancel their birthday (party), they just say, ‘Well, maybe next year.’”
It's hard to pin down how many companies and people are involved in event planning, a sector of the economy that includes caterers, wedding planners and event venues, along with a lot of individual contractors ranging from balloon twisters, magicians and party clowns, to chefs, waitstaff, sound technicians and disc jockeys.
Government relief available to those companies and their employees will depend on how they are paid for their work. People who get W-2 forms may be entitled to unemployment benefits and stimulus checks. Small businesses, sole proprietorships, independent contractors and self-employed individuals can apply for the payroll protection program created by the newly approved relief legislation providing eight weeks of cash-flow assistance through potentially forgivable loans to cover payroll, interest on mortgages, rent and utilities.
At Carnival Services in Pomona, California, the company's five Ferris wheels and other carnival rides are crowded inside a warehouse and on the company's lot. In the past, the rides have been rented for PTA and church fundraisers as well an occasional birthday party and Hollywood shoot, said owner Nathan Brainard, whose income supports his wife and seven children 14 and under.
Brainard shuttered his operation on March 16, the 48th anniversary of the company his father founded. There are a few July 4 events still on the books, but it remains unclear whether restrictions will be lifted in time for them to go ahead.
“My dad used to say, ‘Son, we are on the front line of the economy. When it does really well, we do really well because people want to celebrate. But when it does poorly, we will always suffer,’” he said.
For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.
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