The Weddings Boom Is Coming

Get ready for a lot more weddings — not that they ever really went away.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, weddings in the United States brought together people who might not otherwise have gathered in fraught circumstances. Sometimes the outcomes were tragic.

In August, a 55-person wedding in rural Maine resulted in a chain of infections that spread more than 200 miles, landing seven people in the hospital, killing four of them and three others.

A 91-person October wedding on Long Island led to 30 people testing positive.

In central Washington State, a 300-person wedding in November resulted in 61 confirmed cases of infection; some of the attendees worked in a long-term-care facility, where 15 people died.

Most weddings did not make national headlines. Celebrations small and large still went forward, though anecdotal data suggests that a huge number of couples, even those who got married in 2020, pushed their receptions to 2021. Many others lost deposits, tore up guest lists, moved ceremonies outside or to warmer climates and changed the way we celebrated.

An industry market report — which vividly showed the suffering finances of the wedding industry in 2020 — predicts that all will change, and there will be a significant increase in weddings revenue this year. That comes even as Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, suggested in December that weddings be pushed to June or July of 2021 at the earliest.

Couples are already booking their venues with frenzy. The Pavilion at Vida Bela, on a 74-acre farm in Conroe, Texas, generally hosts about 50 events a year. Already there are 42 weddings planned for 2021; about a dozen are set for 2022. “We’re already booking into 2023,” said Michele Amini, an owner.

Weddings have always been emotional, but adding personal boundaries around safety and health, confusing government guidelines and the finer points of air filtration systems to the mix has pushed families and wedding planners to the edge.

“Starting in April, we had a call every Monday with 20 of us,” said Marcy Blum, who runs an event planning business in New York. “It was a lifesaver. It was like group therapy for party planners.”

But it’s been a few weeks since they’ve talked. Everyone’s schedules are filling up again.

ImageSocial distancing at another wedding planned by Ms. Blum, in Michigan.
Credit…Rob Lieberman

Adept at negotiating fraught moments and achieving the impossible, weddings professionals are now also acting as health, infrastructure and grief experts. They face states, counties and cities with shifting and often senseless hodgepodges of guidelines and restrictions, or, sometimes, no rules at all.

“Everybody in the wedding industry is more confused than ever,” said Sonal Shah, who owns an event consulting company in New York. “One person in our office is dedicated to researching C.D.C. guidelines.”

In Texas, now gripped by a severe storm that forced power outages and water shortages, all venues can currently be filled to 75 percent capacity — but, as with a number of states, churches are exempt from that rule.

In North Dakota, an executive order ended capacity limits on weddings in mid-January, but state guidelines still offer numerous suggestions, such as limiting guest lists to 1,000 people in venues that can hold 2,000.

In New York, for now, weddings are capped at 50 people — indoors or outdoors. Religious ceremonies have to limit attendees to 50 percent of the venue’s capacity. (Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, under fire for how the state counted deaths in nursing homes, promised restrictions will loosen to 150 people in March, but every guest will have to be tested.)

The Michigan guidelines are nearly impenetrable, but seem to indicate that no more than 10 people from no more than two households can gather indoors, and 25 people can gather outside, as long as there are no more than 20 people within 1,000 square feet — unless there is fixed seating, in which case a maximum of 25 people can gather, as long as attendance is limited to 20 percent of seating capacity of the outdoor area. Got all that?

Regulations can also change unexpectedly, a challenge for events that are planned months in advance. “There was a restriction where we couldn’t seat more than eight people at a table for a private banquet event,” said Caroline Scarpinato, the director of event sales at the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla. “We had that rule for one week. We had to go back to our clients and say, ‘We have to get more linens, centerpieces, you have to redo your seating and your escort cards.’”

Throughout the pandemic, elected officials have run afoul of many of these guidelines.

In May, Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff, broke city and state guidelines that limited gatherings to 10 people or less, when he hosted an indoor wedding for his daughter in Atlanta with several dozen attendees. Masks were nowhere to be seen in photos.

In November, Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin and a Democrat, hosted his daughter’s 20-person outdoor wedding at a time when the city recommended that people not gather in groups larger than 10. (Mr. Adler and family then boarded a private jet for Mexico, according to The Austin American-Statesman.)

Around Thanksgiving, while a boom in travel exacerbated the pandemic, another mayor, a Republican from Illinois, defended traveling to his daughter’s 53-person outdoor wedding in Naples, Fla.


Credit…Corbin Gurkin

Health, safety and finances have all weighed heavily on wedding professionals, as they have faced couples and families with wildly divergent ideas about safety and best practices.

“They have this vision in their head of what their wedding day will look like,” Ms. Shah said, of some clients. “Potentially they feel like it’s an embarrassment to call guests and un-invite them or say, ‘We have to do this over Zoom.’” But, she said, “I don’t think it’s worth breaking these guidelines and, literally, the law, in order just to get married.”

“We feel a tremendous amount of pressure as planners,” Ms. Shah said. “If I don’t get booked, our D.J.s don’t get booked, our caterers don’t get booked, our venues don’t get booked.”

Most years, Michelle Rago’s event planning firm produces around eight weddings, but in 2020 there was only one: a 250-guest event on a private horse farm in Indiana.

“It was one of the biggest challenges I’ve dealt with,” Ms. Rago said. “Everybody on my team was scared, but they wanted to work. They hadn’t worked for eight months, and the government wasn’t helping people.”

The October wedding was held inside a custom-designed two-level tent with vigorous air filtration.

Every member of staff and every vendor was tested before and after the wedding (though testing is not a foolproof safety practice), and each vendor had their own room at a hotel. “Flight prices were so in the gutter that we were able to fly staff spaced out or in business class,” Ms. Rago said.

Even having done what she could, after the wedding, Ms. Rago was anxious for weeks. “You wouldn’t have a heart if you weren’t worried,” she said. “But I feel that we did everything humanly possible to take care of the guests and vendors.”


Credit…Corbin Gurkin

Credit…Corbin Gurkin

As far as Ms. Rago knows, no one got sick, but she recognizes that any event during the pandemic has been about minimizing risk, not eliminating it. “You can do all the testing you want,” Ms. Rago said. “It’s not a perfect science.”

Yifat Oren, the founder of a luxury events firm with offices in Los Angeles and New York, arranged three days of on-site testing at one of the weddings she organized recently. “It was not inexpensive,” she said.

Unsurprisingly, money helps make a pandemic wedding more achievable. “When you’re talking about billionaires, they have a different set of rules,” Ms. Oren said. “They vacation on private bubble islands and fly there on their private jets. There’s a lot more disposable income.”

But there are risk mitigation strategies for the rest of us. Chioma Adure Nwogu-Johnson, the creative director of Dure Events in Houston, said that beyond now-standard precautions, like high-grade HVAC systems and masks, she has implemented some new techniques, like a three-step RSVP process: before the invitation is sent, afterward, and one week before the wedding. This way, she and her clients can communicate evolving safety plans to guests.

Wedding planners have also learned something from the world of consent communication. For a wedding in May with a guest list of 400 that will be held in a 1,200-person ballroom, Ms. Nwogu-Johnson plans to hand out wristbands in three different colors. “Red means, ‘I’m here but don’t touch me,’” she said. “Yellow means, ‘Come around me at your own risk,’ and green means, ‘Hug me, kiss me, do anything you want to do. I want to spray money. I want to dance.’”


Credit…Samm Blake/The Wedding Artists Co

The deeply personal nature of weddings makes planning in a pandemic even more difficult.

“It was a big lesson in what’s the most important. To have food? To have people? To have the venue?” said Shawn Marie Calvin Calbus, 34, who postponed her wedding from April 19 to Aug. 2, and moved it from Shinola Hotel in Detroit to a friend’s backyard. No one was allowed inside the house; for bathrooms, the couple rented upscale trailers.

“We’re a Christian family,” Ms. Calvin Calbus said. “We prayed about it. We really wanted to make the right decision for us, and that was to go through with it however we could. We’d been together for eight years already.”

In Boca Raton, Fla., Melissa and Roger Barnard changed their wedding date twice. Originally, they invited 150 people for a day late last March. Instead, their wedding took place on July 4 with about 45 guests at the Breakers. “We had people canceling the night of, or three days prior,” said Ms. Barnard, 33. Some members of the wedding party dropped out.

“At the end of the day it’s about us and not necessarily about our guests,” Ms. Barnard said. “I don’t want to postpone our lives anymore. We were trying to move into a new home. We want to have a family soon.”

Ms. Amini, the co-owner of the Pavilion at Vida Bela in Texas with her husband, has seen firsthand what the coronavirus can do. Two of her children work in health care, and one suffered from Covid-19 for three weeks in March. “That was the sickest I’ve ever seen her,” Ms. Amini said.

So she is always surprised when she meets resistance to her emails to clients with ideas for making their wedding safer. She recommends wearing masks, putting hand sanitizer on every table, serving appetizers and desserts in individual wrappers, and seating no more than six people at a table. (Texas state guidelines allow for 10, which Ms. Amini described as “crazy.”)


Credit…Clane Gessel


Credit…Aryanna Amini

“I have heard brides say, ‘I don’t want to see masks at my wedding,’” Ms. Amini said. “We’ve had some weddings where no one was wearing masks whatsoever.”

When it comes to enforcement, she feels that her hands are tied. “When the police officers who are my security guards, when they show up without masks, what can I do? As much as I think it’s advisable, I’m not an authority that can enforce that,” Ms. Amini said.

Some couples chose to shrink their weddings significantly.

Catherine Graveline, 37, who lives in Washington, D.C., was supposed to marry Anthony Mattia, 36, who is stationed with the military in Japan, in October. Mr. Mattia expects to be transferred to a different command this summer, and they will have to be married in order for Ms. Graveline to join him.

Two weeks after Ms. Graveline sent out an invitation in early August, the couple found out that Mr. Mattia would not be approved for leave because of Japan’s strict requirements around travel during the pandemic. They put the wedding plans on hold.

But on the weekend of Dec. 11, Mr. Mattia unexpectedly found out that he would be able to go home a week later. Within 10 days, Ms. Graveline organized a ceremony at a local church. As one of 10 siblings, Ms. Graveline hoped for a big bash, but she settled on 15 people in her backyard. “My neighbor did my makeup,” Ms. Graveline said.

“With the military life, you already wait and wait and wait on a lot of things,” said Ms. Graveline, who hadn’t seen Mr. Mattia for nearly a year before he came home in December. “This was one thing we wanted to have control over.”

Some couples have opted for warmer climates.

“Many planners and vendors based in New York who always had a bit of a toe in the sand here have established more offices here,” said Stacie Hallinan, the director of events and catering at Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa in Manalapan, Fla.

Since September, the statewide regulations in Florida have focused on “economic vitality” rather than on virus spread: For example, a state order prevents local jurisdictions from limiting a venue to less than half of its capacity.

Ms. Scarpinato, from the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., has gotten a number of requests for weddings from out-of-state clients who had to cancel their original plans. “They had a wedding scheduled for 200 people elsewhere, and they really want to get married,” she said.

Since reopening last summer, the Breakers has hosted weddings with an average guest count of 50 to 100; its largest wedding had 150. “We meet every other week with our risk management department and some members of the executive group, and review every event that’s coming up,” Ms. Scarpinato said.

Among their choices for safety: limiting indoor events to 50 percent capacity, offering individually packaged food options and shortening the length of cocktail hour.

As vaccinations and hope spread across the United States, the race to schedule weddings is on.

“Everyone is really worried about putting a date on it and sending out a new save-the-date so their friends don’t snatch up the date and they can’t get married until 2023,” said Ms. Blum, the event planner. “Every time I make a call, ‘No, that’s booked.’ They’re trying to get people to do weddings on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

It’s a relief for a huge industry that has suffered during the pandemic. “From a small-business perspective, it’s devastating,” said Ceci Johnson, the founder of Ceci New York, a design agency that specializes in stationery.

After all, weddings drive income for caterers, decorators, planners, florists, musicians, makeup artists, clothing designers, hair stylists, photographers, videographers, dance instructors, cleaners, limousine drivers and many other professionals.

Many planners expressed relief that the future won’t be filled with Zoom weddings and are hopeful that the vaccine will allow their industry to revive.

“If there’s a word I never want to hear again, it’s ‘pivoting,’” said Ms. Oren, the Los Angeles-based planner. “What I do is so tactile. I have zero aspirations to move what I do to the digital world. I think all people want is to gather and get sweaty on the dance floor.”

Couples are already booking their venues with frenzy. The Pavilion at Vida Bela, on a 74-acre farm in Conroe, Texas, generally hosts about 50 events a year. Already there are 42 weddings planned for 2021; about a dozen are set for 2022. “We’re already booking into 2023,” said Michele Amini, an owner.

Weddings have always been emotional, but adding personal boundaries around safety and health, confusing government guidelines and the finer points of air filtration systems to the mix has pushed families and wedding planners to the edge.

“Starting in April, we had a call every Monday with 20 of us,” said Marcy Blum, who runs an event planning business in New York. “It was a lifesaver. It was like group therapy for party planners.”

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