This story is part of the In-Between, Slate’s series on how life is slowly getting back to normal.
2020 led to a boom in a lot of things: hand sanitizer sales, bread making, racial reckoning, existential despair. Not on that list? Weddings. According to a survey by The Wedding Report, almost half of couples planning to get married in 2020 postponed their weddings to 2021—and that was before the second wave of the pandemic forced additional delays. For couples who had weddings planned for 2020, the past year has been a cycle of rescheduling and rescinded invitations, all governed by a patchwork of rules that not only differ between the venue and the county and the state, but can also change from one week to the next. For wedding planners, the pandemic has forced them to become some combination of health official, logistics coordinator, and therapist—even as they watch their business take hit after hit.
Wedding planners have spent much of the past year “un-planning weddings,” says Joan Glenn, creative director of 6 Degrees of Celebration. “It’s very hard to ask for money for that. It was a very, very stressful and sad time for all of these people […] and so I certainly wasn’t about to say, ‘Oh, you have to pay me to find you a new date.’” But that was at the beginning of the pandemic, when clients were moving their dates to the summer. Now Glenn has clients who are on their third postponement. “And now they’re saying, ‘Forget it. I’m just going to elope.’”
It’s a tough position for wedding planners, who have to negotiate with vendors and venues and guests with every postponement, only to have couples cancel entirely. It’s difficult for venues too, who have seen their prime 2021 wedding season dates go to postponed 2020 weddings. “Any venue that has the ability to offer an outdoor wedding is just completely booked for 2021,” Glenn says. But since a significant portion of those bookings aren’t new business, venues and vendors might expect to see a loss in 2021 even as they’re busier than ever. “There’s only so many weekend days,” says Annie Lee, principal designer of Daughter of Design. “Not only does it screw new couples who want to look for availability and dates, but the vendors [who] for two years have no regular income because you’re just trying to honor [old] contracts.”
Couples who chose to postpone (and postpone and postpone) their weddings are stuck in a holding pattern that, with the arrival of vaccines, has only just begun to show signs of ending. But the couples who chose to move forward with a scaled-down version of their original wedding plans still risk more than losing a deposit. Glenn told me about one of her clients who postponed their original June wedding to December: “They were extremely respectful of all of the protocols that they thought would make their guests feel more comfortable and that the venue required of them.” Those protocols included masks for all 55 guests, who were to be seated six feet apart. The couple had even hired a doctor to administer rapid COVID tests in the hotel parking lot as guests arrived.
But the day before the wedding, as the families checked into the hotel for the rehearsal, the mother of the groom tested positive for COVID. “They had all been exposed to her,” Glenn said. “They were staying at her house because they had traveled in from out of town. And we had to literally cancel the wedding 20 hours before. It was brutal.”
The couple did end up still getting married. The venue, understandably averse to exposing anyone else, allowed them use of an outdoor space on the property. “The florist and I, and his staff, shoveled out this like half of an acre for their 30 guests to stand there and watch them get married,” Glenn said. “They came, they got married, and they left. They didn’t have a party. They didn’t get to eat anything. They didn’t do all of those other things that they had planned for a year and a half.”
Not every pandemic wedding has been so dramatic. Glenn put on 13 weddings last year, Lee just one. All of them were what the industry calls a micro-wedding, which typically have no more than 50 guests. Lee’s single micro-wedding was for Eunice Kennedy Shriver (the granddaughter of John F. Kennedy’s sister) whose wedding was featured in Vogue, so while the guest list only included 32 people, the budget was nowhere near micro. And while most couples won’t have Kennedy money to spend or a vintage Dior dress handed down from their grandmother, Lee foresees some of the trends of the Shriver wedding trickling down to lower-budget affairs.
“What I’m seeing with these micro weddings is the fashion budget remains, if not goes up, as does the photographer,” Lee explained. She recalled the aesthetic that emerged out of the 2008 recession, where lavish, banquet-hall events either weren’t feasible or simply looked insensitive. She points to the corresponding Etsy boom, bolstered by new demand for vintage decorations for barn weddings. “My god, I never want to see a Mason jar again,” she said. “All of that came in because it looked less ostentatious. [My clients] were still spending the same amount of money, but the décor didn’t feel as lavish.” Now we’re seeing “the whole backyard vibe. The micro wedding is really setting a tone in terms of how it should look and feel.”
Lee’s not sure if the micro-wedding trend will continue once vaccines are more widely distributed. She told me that when the Pfizer vaccine was first announced, her inbox “started to fill up like normal times.” But large-scale, 300-person indoor events of the kind that Lee used to plan still seem far out of reach. And most couples don’t need a full-service wedding planner for what is essentially a very fancy dinner party. Lee thinks the future is in by-the-hour style booking and she’s created a website called Plannie for that purpose. “It’s a network of local event planners in cities worldwide that you can work with on an hourly basis, or even like a day-of person,” she said. “It’s just meant to really democratize access to an event planner.” Plannie was up and running before the pandemic, but Lee says it’s become especially useful since local planners are better equipped to deal with the ever-hanging morass of pandemic guidelines than someone who works in multiple cities.
In Texas, for example, Gov. Greg Abbott recently ended the statewide mask mandate and allowed businesses to open at 100% capacity, which means on a statewide level, there is no limit on how many guests can attend a wedding. Individual venues, however, might choose to require guests to wear masks or to limit guest capacity. In California, masked religious gatherings are allowed, with capacity limitations varying from county to county, while wedding receptions are largely verboten. In New York City, wedding receptions are allowed—but with only 50 masked guests and indoor dining is prohibited. That’s without even considering how different states have different requirements for out-of-state travelers.
While postponing ad infinitum until everyone has been vaccinated seems the easiest option for the recently engaged, couples who intended to get married in 2020 are still stuck with a set of impossible choices. “A lot of these couples want to have a baby,” Lee said, “They’re not trying to wait two more years, so they don’t want to keep postponing the wedding another year, another year. [And] once you have the baby and you’ve gone on into your family life, you’re like, ‘Ugh.’ To go back and be excited about the wedding is a little bit hard.” It’s even harder for the venues and the vendors and the planners who have seen at half a year or more worth of revenue disappear, with the end barely in sight.