Some in Virginia’s wedding industry are saying ‘I don’t’ to pandemic safety guidelines

By: - July 22, 2020 12:01 am

Newly married Tyler and Caryn Suiters embrace following their marriage ceremony performed by Rev. Andrew Merrow in an otherwise empty St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on April 18, 2020, in Arlington. Rev. Merrow and his wife Cameron Merrow were the only other attendees at the ceremony due to social distancing guidelines implemented in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

About a week and a half ago, Susan Hartle came down with deep fatigue and a dry cough. A COVID-19 test confirmed the worst for the wedding planner, who coordinates events in North Carolina and Virginia. 

“To catch it really is shocking to me,” she said. She’s been vigilant about wearing a mask, mostly stayed at home and moved all of her consultations to video. The ceremonies she’s coordinated since the start of the pandemic have been small gatherings, all limited to 25 people — maximum — for outdoor events.

Since her diagnosis, Hartle said she’s begun to have reservations about hosting weddings in general — no matter how small the event. And as Virginia continues in Phase Three reopening, a stage that allows gatherings with up to 250 people, other industry insiders are worrying that weddings will become a new driver for disease. 

While the state recently became the first to mandate COVID-19 safety regulations for workplaces, there are only nonbinding recommendations for social gatherings. At times, those guidelines seem at odds with other executive orders, such as Gov. Ralph Northam’s mask mandate for all indoor settings. 

Under the state’s business guidelines, venues are advised they can host private events if they comply with the recommendations. But wearing masks isn’t included as a guideline for social gatherings, despite the expanded capacity requirements. Interpreting the mishmash of rules and guidelines has become a challenge for the wedding industry, which can bring together many different businesses for a single event — from planners to photographers to florists to venues to caterers. 

“There’s a lot of confusion around the guidelines and the executive orders and how they pertain to weddings,” said Sara Kite, who — along with her husband, Jason — owns a wedding planning and floral arrangement company called Faded Poppy in Waynesboro. Since the start of the pandemic, they’ve adopted strict COVID-19 policies based on their understanding of the state’s best practices and multiple calls with the Virginia Department of Health. For indoor ceremonies and receptions, that includes a face covering requirement for both guests and the wedding party (though couples can remove their masks for their first kiss). 

The policies, to a large extent, have made them feel like outliers in the industry. While some recent clients have been receptive, “for us, we’re just getting cancellations left, right and center,” Jason Kite said. As a compromise to customers who don’t want to adopt strict mask and distancing requirements, Faded Poppy recently started offering a “50 percent” package deal in which Sara and Jason coordinate the wedding until the point when it moves indoors (clients get a refund for the remaining time, Sara said). One bride recently agreed to the option, but changed her mind after finding another planner.

“She said, ‘Well, actually, I don’t need to do that anymore because I’ve found a coordinator who will allow me to have my wedding without masks — with nobody inside wearing masks,’” Jason said. “So, in essence, she’s found a wedding professional who’s prepared to work outside the law, and we’ve lost more business because we’re not prepared to do that.”

It doesn’t help that weddings occupy a gray area amid the state’s guidance and regulations. Virginia might be for lovers, but weddings haven’t been specifically addressed in any of the reopening guidelines. Kelly Coronel, an event planner and president of the Eastern Virginia Weddings Association, pointed out that it took until last Tuesday for Northam to mention them at one of his COVID-19 press briefings (the governor briefly listed them as one of the areas that would continue to be impacted by the ongoing pandemic).

While multiple businesses are requiring masks and other safety measures for their own workers, they’re stopping short of requiring them for clients. “This is private property and the events we host are private events,” said Jennifer Mackowski, a managing partner for the venue Stevenson Ridge in Spotsylvania. “So, we are recommending that our clients ask their guests to wear masks, but we are not requiring it.” 

The same goes for social distancing, Mackowski said — although the venue is requiring masks for indoor ceremonies in its 19th-century chapel, which doesn’t offer much space to spread out (churches in Virginia can operate at full capacity in Phase 3 as long as worshippers are spaced six feet apart). In one case, the less-restrictive policies were a boon for business. “We have recently had a client come to us because their venue was requiring masks,” Mackowski said, “and requiring them to have less than 50 people.” 

“The guidelines aren’t requiring that of us because we are private events, a private facility,” she added. “But if we were as strict as, say, requiring everybody to wear a mask or limiting all events to a certain amount of people, we would have no income. We need to keep our doors open, and that means taking a little bit more risk. It’s disappointing that it’s coming to that, but we need the revenue right now.”

By all accounts, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the wedding industry. Mackowski estimated she’s lost “hundreds of thousands” in revenue since March. Coronel, who’s had 12 cancellations, said she’s lost between $50,000 and $60,000. One of the co-plaintiffs on a lawsuit against Northam’s initial restrictions was Jon Tigges, the owner of the venue Zion Springs in Loudoun County, who told the Mercury that he’s lost $900,000 so far this year.

“All of this is exceptionally complicated and truly draconian,” said Tigges, who argued in his suit that Northam suppressed new data showing the pandemic is “significantly less deadly than originally forecasted.” A federal judge denied his request to block parts of the executive order on Monday, but there’s no sign it’s eased the confusion on what is and isn’t allowed.

Kristen and Dustin Harper, who followed safety guidelines, held a wedding ceremony this April at a private apple orchard in Troutville. Their original venue was closed earlier in the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Carole Gabrielson, wedding photographer)

“It’s a fine line,” Coronel said. “All I can do as a planner is go by the guidelines and recommend wearing masks, especially indoors. And if they’re not going to follow that, I’m not the police.” 

The end result is variability. Joshua Gabrielson, who runs a wedding photography and videography business in Roanoke with his wife, said they’ve purchased new zoom lenses and an ultraviolet sanitation box for their gear. “But what I’m finding interesting is not everyone is playing by the rules,” he added. Gabrielson said he shot video at one July 4 wedding in Floyd where the photographer, caterer and DJ all went maskless. At an upcoming wedding in Wintergreen, the church is asking him to wear a mask but the venue is not.

“There’s sort of this confusion of, ‘Well, what are we supposed to be doing?’” he added. 

Truman Braslaw, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Health, said there have been no reported COVID-19 outbreaks linked to weddings or other private gatherings in Virginia. Those situations “may not be reported” by participants, according to a member of the department’s data response team, “because it is not viewed as a situation that would affect members of the public.” But a wedding in Montana caused several new infections earlier this month, and a groom in India died two days after a large ceremony that’s been connected to around 100 new cases.   

Some think it’s just a matter of time. For the first three and a half months of the pandemic, Northam’s phased restrictions — which limited gatherings to 10 people, then to 50 — made all but the smallest ceremonies impossible. Most vendors said nearly all of their weddings from March to June were postponed until 2021. But several have upcoming weddings in August and September that haven’t been postponed (some with more than 100 guests from all around the country). Right now, most venues are pushing for outdoor ceremonies and receptions, but that’s highly dependent on the weather, said Cossie Crosswhite, a wedding planner based in Hampton Roads.

“In reality, no dance floor is big enough to stay six feet apart,” she added. “Even when you space people apart, all of that — you see people let their guard down.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.