Shedding tears, negotiating refunds and Zoom weddings: Getting married in the age of coronavirus

Key Points
  • Couples around the country are considering options around canceling or postponing weddings because of coronavirus quarantines.
  • The postponements and cancellations have rocked the wedding industry, causing layoffs and a backlogged 2021 season.
  • Some couples still want to plan celebrations on their wedding date and have turned to Zoom to celebrate with friends.
Kyle Matson and Tracy Meng had to postpone their March 28th wedding in Kauai, Hawaii.
Source: Evan Chung

Tracy Meng and Kyle Matson had planned to get married Saturday, March 28. Instead, they're hosting a Zoom ceremony.

Welcome to the new normal.

Meng, 32, a vice president at and Matson, 32, Chief of Staff at Robinhood, had booked a destination wedding for 120 guests. The two live in San Francisco and had been working for months to assemble of team of vendors from both Hawaii and California to meet in Kauai. 

Like thousands of other Americans, Meng and Matson had to cancel their wedding as states made the decision to limit group gatherings and the world has shifted to social distancing as a way of life. 

While Meng and Matson are still planning on having a wedding in Kauai in August, assuming life returns to normal, the two will be celebrating from their home on the date of the wedding. Instead of a normal wedding, they'll be doing a virtual reception where a group of 30 guests, including the wedding parties, will bring dinner and drinks to their computers. Their guests will log in to Zoom, the video conference platform, which has become one of the few runaway business success stories of the past few weeks. Zoom shares have doubled in value since Jan. 31 at a time when the broader S&P 500 has fallen about 20%. 

"At this point we just have to be OK with things not being perfect, knowing that we're not in control," Meng said in an interview.

The U.S. wedding industry takes in billions of dollars each year, with venues, photographers, florists, caterers, videographers and other vendors establishing full-time businesses around the events. A U.S. wedding cost $44,000 on average in 2018, according to "Brides" magazine. Wedding ceremonies have come to an abrupt halt from coast to coast as large gatherings have been banned nationwide.

The Pleasantdale Chateau, a wedding venue in West Orange, New Jersey, has already canceled all of its weddings for the next eight weeks, costing it about $2 million in revenue, said Santiago Sevilla, director of operations. Sevilla said he laid off 90% of his staff last week, including waiters, bartenders and cleaning people who have worked together at The Pleasantdale Chateau for more than 10 years.

"There's no work for them," Sevilla said. "At least if we lay them off, unemployment can cover them. I haven't done this much crying in years."

Rescheduling madness

The Pleasantdale Chateau is now hoping to rely on a combination of insurance and loans from the government, including a national stimulus package that is dedicating $350 billion in loans to small businesses to help survive the year. The lack of certainty about when weddings can be rebooked is adding to everyone's stress.

"I've got brides panicking with weddings in September," said Sevilla.

Given venue policies, Lavish Weddings, a wedding planner based in San Diego, is working as a conduit to control the flow of cancellations by only allowing customers to nix weddings through the end of June, said owner Christine Ong Forsythe. Lavish helps plan about 40 weddings per year, working with vendors to coordinate around a time and setting.

Now the majority of Forsythe's time is being spent working with vendors and clients to come up with agreeable cancellation policies around deposits. Forsythe estimates about half of her vendors have given couples 100% of their money back if they've had to cancel their wedding, though nearly all have first tried to reschedule before canceling and keeping some of the deposit.

"Obviously not everyone has pandemic in their contract," Forsythe said. "It's hard for our clients and it's hard for vendors. We understand if they can't do a full refund -- a lot of people can't. It's not their choice to cancel."

Rescheduling events means vendors can't book a different client for the future date, so they're doubling up on reservations and collecting only one fee instead of earning two fees.

Moreover, rebooking events for later this year or next year creates hectic weekends and extremely long hours, said Jeremiah Cox, a wedding videographer at ParkLife Wedding Films in Champaign, Illinois. Cox said his company tries to avoid back-to-back weddings because the company films and edits on the fly, showing a six minute highlight film of the day's events to guests at the reception that night. The work is frequently 12 hours of "nonstop, go-go-go work," he said.

"It's going to be crazy," Cox said. "We've never taken back to back days before. But it's desperate times."

The National Association for Catering & Events chapter of Maine recently held a Zoom conference call for its members championing a campaign from HoneyBook, a business software company for wedding planners and related vendors, entitled "#RescheduleDontCancel."

The Maine-based chapter has been brainstorming ideas around rescheduling with clients, including altering weddings to smaller groups of people who might be comfortable in certain situations.

"Maybe you have 20 people, but they all get caviar and you livestream the wedding to everyone else," said Katrina Petersen, the Program Director of NACE Maine and an owner of a wedding venue. "Maybe you send some gifts to grandma and grandpa. Maybe each couple at the wedding gets their own table to keep distance, and they each get a nine-course dinner and champagne." 

But many March, April and May weddings are destination weddings, which have led to more outright cancellations than postponements than would occur in-season for cold weather U.S. states, such as Maine. That's caused vendors and couples to start looking at fine print around contracts they never thought they'd have to examine to figure out what deposit money can or should be refunded.

"This is a somewhat unprecedented situation," Jonathan M. Dunitz, a lawyer at Verrill in Portland, Maine, said during the NACE Maine conference call. "Even lawyers are scrambling to figure out what's going to happen with contracts."

Scouring contracts

The primary issue is defining a so-called "force majeure," or "act of God," which many contracts contain that say certain external acts allow vendors to keep prepaid fees. But the language around what's covered by force majeure is typically very specific, and "very few cover nationwide epidemic," Dunitz said.

"We don't really know if this will be considered an act of God," Dunitz said.

Many contracts only require full refunds if the vendor cancels, rather than the couple. That can lead to a game of chicken between the two parties, with each side pushing their coronavirus tolerance to the maximum, said James Dungan, a Chicago resident who canceled his destination wedding in Austin, Texas on March 29 and hasn't rescheduled given the uncertainty of coronavirus quarantines.

"It was a really messy process trying to cancel because nobody wanted to cancel," said Dungan, who noted that vendors in Austin had already been hit hard by the cancellation of South by Southwest, the annual conference and festival that was scheduled to run from March 13 to March 22 this year. Dungan said he ended up negotiating refunds on a vendor-by-vendor basis, sometimes trying to push partial refunds to full reimbursements. "I totally described it as a game of chicken to friends," Dungan said.

Dungan, 31, and Hurst, 29, are now planning on dressing up for their wedding in full (Hurst picked up her wedding dress earlier this week) and walking over to Lake Michigan on March 29 to celebrate on their own, followed by baking and eating their own wedding cake.

"We were planning on making our own for the wedding anyway," Hurst said. "Now we'll just eat it at home ourselves."

Christina Vargas and Dan Kornfeld have made the decision to cancel their May wedding on account of coronavirus quarantines.
Source: Christina Vargas

Christina Vargas, 37, and her husband, Dan Kornfeld, 47, were savvy enough to buy wedding insurance in late February after coronavirus beginning spreading wildly in China. Still, the couple found that many policies didn't cover for pandemic and only purchased one after ensuring the language protected them. They've moved their May 16 wedding to December 5 in hopes they won't need to use the insurance at all.

Unfortunately, Vargas and Kornfeld already got their May 16 date engraved into their wedding bands. Vargas said she's already made a date with her ring-maker to add December 5 to the ring "as soon as everything clears up."

Deciding to cancel, and sending an e-mail to the entire guest list alerting them that the wedding is off, can be emotionally excruciating. Sara Padua, 36, and her husband David Cordua, 37, looked into setting up hand sanitizer stations at their venue in Mexico City and even "had the transportation people agree to put masks in every shuttle" before making the gut-wrenching decision to cancel.

They plan to reschedule in Mexico City, in part because they've already paid in full and wouldn't get a refund, said Padua, and also because they still want their dream destination wedding, even if they have to wait.

No end date in sight

Rebooking has become a game for many couples who are deciding how far out they're comfortable rescheduling their wedding while not knowing when quarantines will lift. It's possible some couples may need to reschedule twice if they rebook too early. 

Rachel Shkolnik marries Evan Shaffer at her parents' house after cancelling their Cipriani wedding.
Source: Rachel Shkolnik

Rachel, 30, and Evan Shaffer, 36, decided to cancel their wedding at Cipriani in midtown New York City for 350 guests on March 15. They've coordinated with all of their vendors to reschedule for late June, realizing they may have chosen a day that's too early for quarantines to have ended.

In the meantime, the Shaffers found a way to still get legally married and even celebrate. They gathered at Rachel's parents' house on Centre Island in Oyster Bay, New York and had a rabbi marry them in front of immediate family and a few cousins to make a minyan of 10 people.

And if people still don't come together to celebrate by June 28?

"If we still can't get married in late June at this venue, we have a lot more concerns as a country than a wedding reception," Rachel said.

WATCH: White House and Senate strike deal on historic $2 trillion coronavirus stumulus bill

White House and Senate strike deal on historic $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill
White House and Senate strike deal on historic $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill