A Gardner hotel has been fined $600 after the city learned the facility hosted two weddings attended by an estimated total of 420 people last weekend — both events exceeding state rules limiting the size of gatherings to 100 people, officials said.
Governor Charlie Baker said at a Friday press conference that state agencies are investigating any ways in which the weddings at the Colonial Hotel, held Aug. 1 and Aug. 2, violated COVID-19 safety guidelines. He said the gatherings will likely lead to “thousands of dollars [in fines] that that particular venue will be paying” once the number of violations is tabulated for both events. Each violation could prompt its own $300 fine.
Gardner Mayor Michael Nicholson said in a phone interview that the Colonial operators had been warned by city officials about potential guideline violations in advance of the weddings, after an employee made an anonymous complaint about the hotel’s plans to the city’s Board of Health. Employees also reached out to the state Department of Labor Standards.
Nicholson said the city could not sanction the hotel operator before the two events were held. Under COVID guidelines, it could only cite the facility once it was confirmed that the events had taken place and were not in compliance with state rules.
The first wedding was attended by an estimated 240 people and the hotel deployed some 70 people to work the event, which was held outside underneath a tent on the hotel’s grounds, the mayor said, citing city and state reports. The second wedding drew an estimated 180 people and 20 employees in the same outdoor, tented environment, the mayor said, also citing those reports.
“People are just confused. I don’t think it was deliberate, a person saying we are just not going to follow the guidelines,” Nicholson said. “We are certainly not pleased with the situation.”
Still, the city’s Board of Health concluded the gatherings violated COVID-19 safety guidelines imposed by the Baker administration, leaving the city with no choice but to impose the maximum civil fine allowable for local governments.
“I can tell you that this is something that I and all of our health officials hope we never have to deal with again,’' said Nicholson, who was sworn into office three weeks ago following a special election.
The Colonial Hotel, in a brief statement Friday, denied any violations.
“The hotel, as previously stated always has been and will continue to be in compliance with all local and state rules and regulations,” the statement said. “We have requested a meeting with the local boards to discuss the fines at their earliest convenience. There are NO COVID transmissions that we are aware of.”
According to the board officials, the Colonial acknowledged it had received a formal warning ahead of the events and gave the town “an assurance that they would adhere to the guidelines to the best of their ability.”
However, the statement said, “following the event, we received notification that the number of attendees at the wedding exceeded the maximum allowable guests per current COVID-19 safety guidelines. We were also informed that there was a second event that took place at the venue the following day that exceeded maximum capacity.”
The Gardner Board of Health said its inquiry is ongoing and Nicholson noted that COVID-19 rules in effect last weekend required the wearing of masks and banned the use of dance floors or bars at private events. “The City has not received a formal, written complaint regarding the bar, dance floor, or mask violations at this time,’' the board said. “If we receive other complaints, we will certainly investigate those as they come in.”
The 112-room hotel bills itself on its website as “one of Central Massachusetts’ most romantic hotels & wedding venues” and says it hosts around 100 nuptials and corporate events every year.
“This casual venue attracts guests from Massachusetts & Southern New Hampshire on wedding weekends, and business travelers from Tyco International throughout the week,” the site says.
The hotel has had other recent issues related to events, as well.
Attorney General Maura Healey’s office confirmed Friday that it has received eight complaints regarding refunds for deposits on canceled events at the Colonial, and that the office has contacted the venue to learn more.
The hotel didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the complaints fielded by Healey’s office.
The state has limited outdoor gatherings in “enclosed, permitted, or leased spaces” to 25 percent of permitted occupancy, or eight people per 1,000 square feet of space, but never more than 100 persons in a single space.
Baker announced Friday that, due to concerns that the coronavirus may be on the upswing, he was cutting that limit to 50 persons, effective Tuesday.