July 16, 2020 -- When Shirlynn Brownell and Cedric Fortson began planning their wedding, they could have never imagined that hand sanitizer would make the favor list, or that guests would be wearing face masks adorned with their wedding hashtag: #FromThisDayFortson.
But that was 10 months ago, long before COVID-19 made even mundane tasks difficult and festive events nearly impossible.
While the wedding industry has taken a big hit, Brownell and Fortson are among a growing number of couples opting to tie the knot among their family and friends as states loosen restrictions, despite pandemic concerns. They will be getting married Aug. 29 at the Bibb Mill Event Center in Columbus, GA, with about 150 people there to commemorate their union.
“I think for me the question was, postpone until when? We don’t know what the future holds,” Brownell says. “Lord knows what 2021 is going to bring. We certainly didn't see this coming for 2020.”
The couple has cut down on the number of people at each table to allow for social distancing and will keep families and households together, they say. Though guidelines vary by state, Georgia has banned gatherings of more than 50 people unless there are 6 feet between each person.
For most event planners, wedding season has been put on an indefinite pause. Many couples have gotten married in private or over Zoom, with a promise to loved ones that a party will be held once the coronavirus chaos blows over.
No one wants the fear of illness casting a shadow over such an important day, says Jeri Fitzgerald, a wedding planner in Tucson, AZ.
She says couples holding larger weddings in the near future should be prepared to pay for empty plates.
“There might be 100 people who show up instead of 200 people, and you’re paying for another 100 people who aren’t there,” Fitzgerald says. “The bottom line to me is people are dying. Until we keep people from dying, I try to be careful with what I do. I would turn down a wedding for more than 10 people.”
Those who have a date set for this year must take a COVID-conscious approach, says Andre Wells, an event designer based in Washington, D.C. This includes having protective equipment stations, multiple hand-washing sites, plenty of room to practice responsible social distancing -- and even people to take temperatures when guests arrive.
“COVID affects everything about events,” Wells says. “They’re about gathering, hugging, dancing. You have to really, really think about it and get creative.”
Like many event planners, Wells has seen a substantial drop in business since March. Not only are people afraid to gather, but most hotels and venues are closed, he says.
“We plan for the future, that’s what we do,” he says. “Many of us do large weddings and large events. Right now, I don’t know how you can make that happen.”
While some may put off their nuptials until the pandemic is over, or better under control, some local officials say they’ve seen an increase in marriage license applications. NPR reported in April that one city in Virginia and another in Arkansas reported spikes in licenses over 2019.
Wells is helping to plan a 300-person wedding that will be held at the Union Station transit station in October, but the save-the-dates noted that given the pandemic, the date could change. The unknowns outnumber the knowns right now, Wells says, and couples opting to keep their fast-approaching dates should be ready for last-minute changes.
Lynne Goldberg, a wedding and event specialist based in New York and Boca Raton, FL, says traditional planning practices are being thrown out the window. Rather than focusing on band-booking and cake-cutting, couples should take precautions with spaced-out line dancing and even a “social distancing concierge” to circle the room and ensure guests are being safe.
“Dances like the hora that require close contact are not happening right now,” says Goldberg, who has made several videos on COVID-19 weddings. “People are not bringing in 12-piece bands. The key is to try to ensure everyone is as safe as possible.”
Goldberg also recommends holding outdoor weddings, as the virus is more easily transmitted indoors, along with keeping the guest list small.
Josh and Dakota Thomas took that approach during their June 6 wedding, which was held mostly outside at a family friend’s house in Cherokee County, GA.
What was originally planned as a 400-person event was whittled down to about 50 people.
“For personal reasons, we wanted to keep the date the same and get on with our lives,” Josh says.
Plus, Dakota says, “We want to start a family, and I wanted to fit into my dress.”
Destination wedding planner Alison Laesser-Keck, based in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, CA, says opting for a pandemic-era wedding that has to be postponed repeatedly means you could have a venue full of guests with “COVID fatigue,” which can put a damper on the occasion.
But in addition to that, Laesser-Keck, who owns Alison Bryan Destinations with her husband, says many wedding planners are not willing to put themselves at risk to help plan and attend a large wedding in 2020.
“I’d be in a hazmat suit, let’s put it that way,” she says. “The hard part is as planners, we just want our clients to have a magical experience.”
For Brownell and Fortson, the hope is that their Aug. 29 wedding will still be magical -- though not at all what they expected when they got engaged.
“COVID has already taken over so much. We just want to be able to enjoy our day,” Brownell says. “Of course there are lingering fears, but you’ve just got to do whatever you can to mitigate some of that risk.”