Passover is quickly approaching and each year thousands of people celebrate by making travel plans for the entire eight days to fully enjoy the holiday without the added stress of preparing it for family and friends. Whether traveling locally, domestically or venturing abroad, many local residents enjoy these Passover programs, which have become a staple for some families. The complexity of these programs varies, with some of the most exquisite programs offering expertly crafted kosher menus, engaging entertainment and respectful Seders. Even some of the local options have grown increasingly more upscale, offering some of the finest dining and Pesach experiences. Passover programs have become a big business in the United States and throughout the world.
However, this year the coronavirus has interfered with many Passover programs. Most travel to Europe has halted, especially Italy where the Passover programs have become wildly popular in recent years. El Al Israel Airlines has canceled almost all of its flights in Europe, which has resulted in massive hits for programs because Israeli law requires a full refund of all ground and air travel previously paid. Some of the largest Passover programs have also already been canceled, including Gem Kosher’s Thailand Pesach vacation.
Domestic travel has also been stunted, particularly in the northeast and to Florida and California. The federal government announced this weekend that it is further considering domestic flight restrictions, which will likely trigger additional cancellations and delays. Despite such an important communal holiday, many people are feeling nervous and anxious due to the coronavirus—especially here in Bergen County and New York City.
This is prompting many residents to cancel their Passover programs due to the coronavirus. Many families are opting to stay home rather than risk exposure. Even some local Passover programs have preemptively canceled, especially in Westchester County.
However, some Passover programs have confirmed that they have not canceled and will be continuing as scheduled—even foreign-travel programs. This creates difficult issues for families who are now faced with losing their deposits or money already paid if they do not go on the trip. This could result in a loss of thousands of dollars for some families. The other alternative residents face is braving exposure to the virus. But this may not be an option for families with elderly guests and family members. Some customers question how many of these Passover programs that refuse to close will keep customers safe during large-scale buffets and entertainment. Whereas some business owners question how they can survive if their season’s programs are cancelled with full refunds.
Passover Program Refunds Due to COVID-19
While some Passover programs are quickly refunding their customers who have canceled, other programs have yet to respond to customers, leaving them in the dark. Some programs are offering partial refunds and issuing a credit for next year’s Pesach. Other programs are trying to convert international vacations into domestic excursions within the United States instead. A majority of programs have yet to definitely say whether they will be canceling their program and, if they do, whether they will be issuing a full or partial refund.
For some families, the prospect of not being refunded all of their money now while having the added expense of preparing for this year’s Seder can be financially draining. Especially considering that some local residents are in service industries like restaurants who have seen a dramatic drop in customers, or businesses that have been temporarily closed. Many local residents are confronted with a difficult decision of whether to lose their money or to possibly expose themselves and family or friends to the coronavirus.
Are Families Entitled to a Full Refund for Passover Program Cancellations Due to COVID-19?
It depends. Generally, families who paid for Passover programs should be entitled to reimbursement. With travel through El Al Israel Airways, full refunds will be automatic. Many programs offer travel insurance, which will also cover any losses not reimbursed; therefore, families will receive payment equal to a full refund. However, travel insurance may only cover instances where a traveler is sick, has a doctor’s note prohibiting travel or where government borders have been shut down—not instances where an individual simply does not want to travel because of the risk of the coronavirus.
Some Passover programs charge a booking fee or other administrative fees. These expenses are related to actually processing the vacation and performing travel arrangements. Many families may be surprised to learn that they will not be refunded these fees. Additionally, families who purchased their Passover program through a third-party vendor may have also paid a fee to the vender, which may not be reimbursed.
It also depends on the terms of the Passover program. Some programs have deadline dates after which they will no longer issue refunds due to expenses associated with preparing for the vacation. These expenses include purchasing food, procuring entertainment and paying for other expenses related to the Seder or vacation experiences. Generally, the closer to the date of the vacation the more likely that a family may not be entitled to a full refund—or even a partial refund.
Even though some programs have yet to make a decision about how they will handle refunds, it is a good business practice for them to keep customers happy for future vacations. This is because Passover programs have become big business and there are many businesses forcing their way into this already crowded market. Programs that outright refuse to refund customers risk a different kind of infectious wrath—Google, Facebook and other social media reviews.
Programs refusing to issue refunds may also face legal challenges. This is because of a common clause in a contract known as a “force majeure.” This provision defines the rights of the parties to a contract where the parties are unable to perform their contractual duties and obligations due to circumstances beyond their control. Common examples of events beyond the parties’ control are acts of God like earthquakes, hurricanes and snowstorms, wars or rebellions, labor disputes or other national or global issues.
The coronavirus pandemic would likely trigger a contract’s force majeure clause where a government has suspended flights, closed a border or issued a lockdown. For example, Passover programs in Italy are very likely to be refunded due to force majeure clauses. Individuals who are required to go into mandatory quarantine may also be able to recover under a force majeure clause. However, individuals who do not want to risk infection by going on a trip may not be able to activate a contract’s force majeure clause.
How the world handles this pandemic will ultimately dictate what happens for many Passover programs that are anxiously waiting for the outbreak to be contained and customers to embark on their vacation. Only time will tell whether families will feel comfortable enough to travel this year or in future years. But the most important thing for both the business owners of these programs and for their loyal customers to realize is that Passover is about so much more than the vacation and the money; it is about the rich history and important rituals commemorating one of the most important parts of Jewish history.
Michael Samuel is a managing partner at Samuel and Stein, a NYC based law firm handling complex litigation in state and federal courts in New York and New Jersey.