By Madeline Laguaite
Malisse Haarl got a marriage proposal during a kayaking trip on the Chattahoochee River, and she and her fiancé started planning their wedding soon after.
The couple envisioned a beautiful wedding in Asheville, N.C., this October. Now, Haarl, who lives in Atlanta, and her fiancé are still planning — but this time, for a backyard ceremony in October, followed by a more elaborate wedding a year later.
The COVID-19 pandemic has infected more than 6 million Americans, including more than 270,000 people in Georgia. Although Georgia has experienced a drop in new confirmed COVID-19 cases since late July, the coronavirus has disrupted many businesses, including the wedding industry. As the pandemic continues, wedding planners and couples are trying to navigate the uncertain waters of the coronavirus emergency.
Gicell Rodriguez, the owner and lead planner of Luna Rosa Weddings & Events in Atlanta, said the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed the way she handles weddings. That means following protocols such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
Rodriguez recalls the impact on her business early in the pandemic, when the lockdown put everything on hold. For “a couple of months,” she said, “everyone in the wedding industry was very nervous about when that next inquiry was going to come. It was at a standstill.”
For Krisjana Turner, owner of Kris Lavender, a full-service wedding planning and event coordination company, the pandemic has brought a whole different blueprint to follow in running her business.
She said that because Georgia was one of the first states to open up after a pandemic lockdown, her business got back into the game a little bit faster than some elsewhere.
“But we have to understand on a daily basis, what the heck is going on?” Turner said. “We have to be fully aware of what’s going on within Georgia and the CDC and all that. So we’ve become the experts, right? Like I could stand next to Dr. Fauci and be like, ‘Yes, doctor, this is what’s going on.’ ”
Gov. Brian Kemp has extended the Public Health State of Emergency, under which gatherings of more than 50 people are banned, unless there’s six feet of distance between each person. These gathering guidelines apply to all activities and businesses, unless they meet the criteria of essential critical infrastructure.
Couples across the nation are expected to comply with state guidelines when planning weddings.
Celebrating in the shadow of COVID-19
Turner said she’s taken plenty of extra precautions during this year’s wedding season. Her business created a liability form that it refers to as “the COVID protocol,” so that clients understand the changes that are happening during their weddings.
Although Turner used to have two planners, there are now three due to the extra precautions and responsibilities they have during weddings. They do temperature checks, give guests hand sanitizer to walk around with all night and, if the event is outside, they have hand-washing stations.
Turner said they also make sure that each guest either comes in with a mask or is provided with one by her clients. At the dinner reception, Turner said, they try to make sure that there are no more than six guests at a table unless the people are in the same family or have been quarantined together.
“We also bring in our own signage,” Turner said. “It’s just like, ‘Hey, thanks for coming. We’re so happy you’re here, however, please remember that we are practicing social distancing.’ ”
In a similar fashion, Rodriguez said there are just more aspects to consider due to the pandemic. Her company has strict policies in place. She and her team do temperature checks and wear masks at all times. The vendors with whom she partners must also wear masks at events, regardless of whether guests are wearing them. Anybody handling food or beverages also wears gloves, she said.
“Now we’re having to ask questions . . . ‘What are you comfortable having your guests do? Are you requiring them to wear a mask, which is strongly recommended?” Rodriguez said. “We’re making sure that it’s in line with the government mandates that are in place.”
Admittedly, encouraging precautions like social distancing isn’t always easy at a wedding.
“Here’s the catch. Even if you do all of that, after the fourth drink, who’s going to remember to stand where they’re supposed to stand?” Turner said. “Sometimes we’ll let the DJ know, maybe ask them to do a reminder as they’re dancing.”
Jennifer Lott, owner of Weddings by Epic, a wedding planning business, said COVID-19 has taken a major toll on her business in terms of workload.
“What a planner might take 30 hours to do is taking 60 hours to do with, of course, no additional resources,” she said. “Essentially, I’m paying somebody to do double the job for the same amount of money.”
However, both Lott and Turner said their clients’ response to the extra precautions has been overwhelmingly positive.
“They love it,” Turner said. “They’re happy that we’ve suggested such things. . . . It’s just to create that environment of celebration, right? That’s what you want.”
Rodriguez said sometimes couples have to lower their guest count by asking some of the people they had invited not to come after all. That conversation can be difficult for everyone involved.
“That is a very uncomfortable situation but they understand the safety concerns,” Rodriguez said. “But I would say for the most part, everyone has been pretty accommodating. . . . Overall I would say a positive response. Just keep in mind that safety definitely comes first.”
Lott said that because her company has a sizable client base, this year’s wedding season has been pretty hectic. In total, she’s had 71 couples postpone their weddings.
This year, more often than not, couples are choosing to have a smaller ceremony — and in some cases planning for a bigger, follow-up ceremony in 2021, she said.
Given the backlog that the pandemic has created, the number of weddings that many planners will work is about to increase drastically.
Lott said the booking process is usually about 12 to 18 months in advance. So couples who get engaged in 2020 will often book for 2021. And with many couples who originally planned to get married in 2020 now also aiming for 2021 instead, next year is shaping up to be very busy.
“Looking at the calendar, I have slight heart palpitations thinking about how are we going to adequately take care of all these people, but I know that I can figure it out,” Lott said. “We just essentially just got to roll with the punches.”
Finding the positives in a postponement
Haarl and her fiancé had planned a honeymoon after the wedding, but they knew they wouldn’t be able to have their large wedding until 2021. On top of that, their honeymoon plans changed twice, because travel is more complicated in the age of COVID-19. Each time, the couple’s intended destination got closer to home. First it was Greece, then Costa Rica, and their current plan is to travel to Utah and Arizona for the Grand Circle Tour.
“Well, you can’t go on a honeymoon without getting married, so we decided that we’re going to do a backyard wedding. It’s going to be outside rain or shine,” Haarl said. “We want to push for outdoors because fresh air is our best friend right now.”
Haarl plans to have a backyard wedding on their half-acre of land, She will encourage her guests to wear masks. She’s also going to use five or six outdoor fans for increased air flow and will provide separate serving utensils for each guest, so nobody is touching the same things, especially while eating.
There will be several hand sanitizer stations. There will be a maximum of 35 people there — a stark contrast to the 120 guests who will eventually attend the larger wedding.
“We’ve been building up this moment for so long that we’re just happy to get married,” Haarl said. “Maybe I’ll get two bangs for my buck. I guess I get to wear my wedding dress twice. . . . I’m trying to pull the positives out of it.”
Rodriguez said she’s feeling hopeful about the wave of weddings now planned for next year.
“Once people realized it’s time to postpone, then there was another rush of our brides and grooms reaching out” to make those arrangements, said Rodriguez, and she added that “2021 is going to be a very busy year, hopefully. with what we already had for 2021 but also with the ones that are being postponed from this year to next year.”
She’s still finding ways to accommodate both kinds of clients — those whose weddings will be carried over from 2020 to 2021 and those who had planned for a 2021 wedding from the start.
“We’re seeing where things are at. It’s going to take a lot of effort from our team and other vendors to make sure we’re all very much in our ‘A’ game for every single wedding that we do,” Rodriguez said.
“I just want to let [my clients] know there might be multiple hands in the pot now . . . as we’re migrating through uncharted territories, and so far, the response rate has been phenomenal,” Lott said.
Haarl said she chooses to be optimistic in spite of the complications brought on by COVID.
“We’re just trying to pull the positives out of it and trying not to get down in that rut of like, ‘I’m so sad,’ because it’s going to be a fun time,” Haarl said. “We can dance and hopefully party in the name of love next year without COVID on our backs and not worrying about if anybody’s going to get sick and die.”
Madeline Laguaite is a freelance journalist and a health and medical journalism graduate student at the University of Georgia. She is particularly interested in LGBTQ health and public health. She has a public/professional Twitter at @MLaguaite and a portfolio at www.madelinelaguaite.com.