North Carolina's expanded indoor and outdoor gathering limits providing hope to businesses, venues

Friday, the state dropped its outdoor mask mandate and further loosened capacity restrictions for both indoor and outdoor gatherings.

"Any transition we're making to move forward I think is a positive step. It's a hopeful step that we're starting to see I call it the light at the end of the tunnel. Where a lot of us have been wearing our mask, washing our hands, doing the distancing. And all those things that we've been doing it sounds like it's working to get us back to what we know as life before COVID," said Jennifer Martin, Executive Director of Shop Local Raleigh.

Indoor gatherings can now be 100 people and outdoor gatherings set at 200 people, with larger venues able to apply for permission to expand that.

Businesses say the loosened restrictions are providing a boost.

"Last week at this time, this weekend was very light in numbers. And it is blown up. People have increased their guest counts. They've decided to have the party that they weren't really going to have," said Jill Santalucia, President and Culinary Director at Catering Works.

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The increased demand has allowed Santalucia to begin trying to hire again, a promising sign.

"We have a solid (capacity limit) we can work with. We can tell customers, 'hey you can have 100 (people).' Before we were calculating, the space says you can have this many," Santalucia explained.

The optimism is also seen in wedding planning, where the ability to hold larger parties are helping couples kickstart their plans.

"I feel like it's better than ever. It's almost like a rubber band. You hold it back and you're stretching it and pop here it comes," said Elana Walker, certified wedding planner with Elana Walker Events.

Walker explained she's busier this time of year than she was pre-pandemic, and believes the layered reopening is allowing people to prepare appropriately.

"For future brides who are considering, 'should I move forward with the plans of my wedding?' I think they're going to feel a lot more confident that based on the way that things have progressed, that by the time their wedding does take place at the end of the year or the beginning of next year, that they'll be able to have the guest count they want," Walker said.

When planning, Walker suggests couples have ample hand sanitizer and masks available for guests, and to review rescheduling and cancellation plans with venues. She adds it's important to make sure there's enough spacing available, and to group families together when devising seating arrangements.

"If you can get through a pandemic, you can get through anything, right?! Honestly, I think the wedding industry is going to take a shot forward and things are going to be back better than ever. You can't cancel love," Walker said.

Martin is encouraged by the capacity limits, and is hopeful that by the time Brewgaloo, which has been pushed back to September, occurs, further reopening will let it operate close to normal. In its place, Martin has organized North Carolina Hops Festival at the State Fairgrounds.

"It's the same weekend that we had Brewgaloo planned, four sessions, two days, and it will be a great opportunity for people to get back out and allow us to still support local business and getting people back," said Martin.

The event will be able to have up to 4,500 people per session, with Martin adding that tickets previously purchased to Brewgaloo can be exchanged for those to NC Hops.

"We want to give our vendors time that they can get their staff back," Martin said about delaying Brewgaloo a few months. "There's still a staffing crisis where we're trying to make sure the food trucks are fully staffed, local businesses are staffed, that we can actually get enough security hired. People like that that actually (are needed) to run the event because so many people have been furloughed for so long, it's going to take a while to get the workforce back as well."

The state's indoor mask mandate remains in effect, with Governor Cooper noting he would remove it once 2/3 of adults in the state are vaccinated. Through Thursday, just 49.2% of adults in North Carolina are at least partially vaccinated.
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