When it comes to Marissa’s destination wedding in Maui on June 20th, there’s more on her can’t-do list than her to-do list. Ever since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., she can’t get a hold of her point person at the Marriott because they’ve been on a leave of absence and won’t return until Hawaii’s travel restrictions — which include a mandatory 14-day quarantine — are lifted. She’s also unable to make a seating chart, order engraved wooden name tags or purchase mini-coolers with her wedding date on them because she’s not sure if anyone will show up. And, of course, she can’t get anyone to RSVP with confidence, even her own mother.
“I can’t tell you how much stuff we have with the date on it,” Marissa, a 30-year-old working in advertising in L.A., tells me, thinking of the champagne labels and custom glasses she ordered. “We’ve stopped the buying, which is the responsible thing to do, but as a bride, it’s really fucking frustrating.” And yet through it all, Marissa can’t bring herself to call off the wedding: “My biggest fear in all of this is that I’m going to be that girl who has to postpone her wedding.”
Only a few months ago, Marissa’s stress would have been relatable. Planning a destination wedding has never been easy — or cheap. (Conservative estimates indicate that American couples spent $54 billion on weddings last year alone, while more generous projections suggest the U.S. wedding industry brings in closer to $80 billion annually.) But this year, it’s obviously further complicated by COVID-19, which couldn’t come at a worse time, as peak wedding season starts in the spring and extends through the fall. As couples scramble to find courthouses that will issue marriage licenses (many have closed) and group events are limited to 10 people or less, brides are left to adapt their dream to fit into the low-grade apocalypse we’re now living in. And because an unprecedented amount of weddings are being canceled or postponed, no one is certain if Big Wedding will survive when life returns to normal.
If this is the end of weddings as we know them, the tradition has been surprisingly short-lived. In the U.S. prior to the 1800s, weddings weren’t so much a celebration as they were a way for fathers to broker their daughters based on the family’s economic status and her ability to bear children. Or as a 2016 blog post published by David’s Bridal puts it, becoming a wife was synonymous with becoming “a household slave.”
According to the paper, “A History and Analysis of Weddings and Wedding Planning” by scholar Clare Finnell, throughout the 1800s traditional wedding details like special clothing or decorations were mostly reserved for wealthier members of society. During this time, women were only starting to have the bare minimum of say in their nuptials — e.g., they were allowed to pick the date, but not the time. With the decline of marriage during the Great Depression, it wasn’t until the 1950s that weddings became fully mainstream. It’s also when women began to take the helm of wedding planning. The advent of wedding planners in the 1960s further allowed the industry to balloon into the behemoth it is today.
But now, veteran New York City wedding planner, Elise, who didn’t want to disclose her real name out of concerns she’d lose clients, anticipates that weddings may return to simpler times. Brides won’t be able to pick their dates and lavish celebrations will be reserved once again for the very rich. “If you fold all those canceled dates into next year, you’re going to be having a black-tie wedding on a Monday night because there won’t be anything else available,” she says, adding that many venues have stopped allowing couples to reschedule until 60 days before their wedding, because of all the panic about how there won’t be enough days to go around next year. Fridays and Sundays are currently as good as Saturdays, and people will pay anything just to have it on a weekend. “With such an increased demand, you’re always going to see an increase in cost.”
Elise is currently trying to salvage four different brides’ weddings, one of whom was supposed to get married in New York City on April 18th. The couple acted swiftly in mid-March and rescheduled for July 3rd. At the time, it seemed like the best course of action, but as the date approaches, it’s entirely possible that they’ll have to call it off completely. Another wedding she had scheduled at a country club in the Hamptons on May 30th was pushed to next year, even though the couple plans to have a small ceremony with less than 10 people on the original date. Her third wedding in early June was rebooked for Labor Day weekend, another one that may fall through, and her fourth couple just called the whole thing off.
“Everyone who has an event this year is concerned,” Elise explains. “Even brides getting married in November are worried that there will be a second wave. No one wants to get anyone sick on one of the most special days of their lives.”
Amy, a 32-year-old filmmaker in Santa Monica, put off her wedding a year because she was starting a production company with her fiancé and wanted to wait until they could afford to get married in Big Sur. The complicated, 100-person event scheduled for September 12th at the Henry Miller Memorial Library was planned 18 months in advance because hotels in the remote area wouldn’t allow blocks of reservations for large groups. “Postponing after we’ve already been engaged for two years and together for seven, and having to work out all of the complicated logistics again sounds overwhelming to me,” Amy laments. “I was very heartbroken when that became a possibility.”
Marissa also put off her wedding previously, when her future mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer shortly after her fiancé proposed. The hope in delaying the big day was that his mom would beat the cancer and they could celebrate that and their love in Hawaii. As her health deteriorated, however, they still opted for a big wedding, one that Marissa estimates she’ll be lucky if 30 people show up to now. “We don’t just want to sign the papers. His mom is dying and we’ve had a million opportunities to get married here with her at least in better health,” Marissa says. “And we’ve turned that down — and my fiancé agrees — because we planned this beach wedding for a reason.”
It’s worth noting that most standard contracts with wedding venues cover force majeure, or acts of God, which a pandemic restricting travel, non-essential businesses and group gatherings qualifies for, Elise confirms. In theory, this means that couples are entitled to their money back, but in practice, it tends to net out to venues and vendors doing whatever they can to work with couples to reschedule. Either way, there’s not a ton of incentive to cancel sooner rather. While ethical businesses (typically larger ones) will often return down payments based on the contract terms and circumstances, smaller venues and vendors may force couples to take them to court — or more plausibly, fail to survive as a business long enough to reschedule coronavirus weddings. “It’s a huge mess, and until there’s a vaccine, no one knows what to do,” Elise says. “We really have to put safety ahead of everything else.”
Amy and Marissa don’t disagree with Elise’s safety-first assessment, but they’ve both still decided to wait it out and hope that everything will work out, no matter how impractical or unsafe that may be. In fact, Marissa has no plans to reschedule, provided Hawaii’s travel restrictions are lifted by her wedding date. And if they’re not? She and her fiancé will just get married on their own (if, obviously, they can find a courthouse that’s open).
“I was really judgmental against anyone who got married before their wedding,” she says. “Why would you pay all that money for people to get wasted and eat dinner when you’re already married? But now I just want to sign that paper and marry the love of my life before we all die of this virus.”