Minimony, micro-wedding, anniversary reception, or sequel party — nowadays the language of wedding planners has morphed to fit the new dynamic of a post-COVID-19 world.
After 18 months of cancellations and lockdowns across the US, weddings have hurtled back, with record numbers of nuptials planned for 2022.
Yet those preparing for their big days are grappling with a new reality: how to have a COVID-safe wedding.
Couples are navigating awkward conversations with family and friends on issues like mandatory vaccines, wedding day test stations and who to invite.
As a result, smaller weddings and whittled-down guest lists are becoming more common both for cost and safety’s sake.
“Couples have to hold the health of their guests paramount and in the worst-case scenarios, health requirements have caused serious issues between family and friends because there is a real dichotomy of beliefs,” says Esther Lee, a senior editor at The Knot, a wedding planning website.
Some post-COVID weddings now feature designer masks and hand sanitiser. (Supplied: Sarah Falugo)
Sue Jin Lee and Amit Seth chose to have a micro-wedding in West Palm Beach, Florida on March 20 this year after postponing their nuptials from December last year.
Originally from New York, and with medical professionals in the family, they were acutely aware of the risk of COVID-19 ruining their big day.
So the couple made the decision to reduce their guest list to just 21 members of their immediate families.
“We wanted to invite other family and friends but it was easier not to open that can of worms,” Ms Lee says.
“We did have disgruntled people, but at the end of the day, it’s a pandemic. We had elderly people there.
“The thought of risking parents wasn’t worth it.”
In a glamorous wedding covered by Vogue and the New York Times, the couple doubled down on quality, paying tribute to their Korean and Indian heritages with stunning wedding attire.
The wedding of Amit Seth and Sue Jin Lee paid tribute to their Indian and Korean heritages.(Supplied: Sarah Falugo)
The entire event was outdoors, every guest eligible for a vaccine had received their shots and their wedding favours reflected the COVID reality — designer masks and monogrammed hand sanitiser.
They had a COVID compliance officer on-site, had Mr Seth’s sister as the officiant, and even the guests outside were socially distanced.
But Ms Lee says it has been tricky navigating the feelings of those who were left out.
“Friends said, ‘You were invited to my wedding, how come I’m not invited to yours?” she said.
“We did have to have conversations with friends who were hurt.”
The ‘vultures’ are circling
As part of its wedding guidelines, The Knot is now urging couples to get explicit in their expectations of guests and to communicate early and directly.
Their running guides include examples such as:
“This Is Exactly What to Email Your Guests and Vendors If You’re a COVID Couple.”
But the change in weddings hasn’t just affected couples, wedding planners have undergone massive shifts in how they operate too.
Annie Lee, who worked on the Lee-Seth wedding, started a business, Plannie, to cater to the demand for local event planners for hire on an hourly basis.
Wedding planners have undergone massive shifts in how they operate since the pandemic began.(Supplied: Sarah Falugo)
“Not only were people doing micro-weddings, but they didn’t want a full-time planner. Planners had to diversify and not be a one-trick pony,” she said.
“People can’t return to the way they ran their businesses before.”
She says the pivot to hourly work “felt like a vulture picking off a dead body”.
Along with the shift in demand, the work planners are doing has changed too.
Ms Lee says she has caught one guest trying to pass fake COVID test results at an event and at an upcoming wedding, she says the groom’s entire side of the family are anti-vaxers and may need a pop-up test site on the wedding day.
And last month, she planned a celebration where vaccination cards were collected from every guest, only to have one of the bridal party test positive for COVID three days after the 200-person event.
Ms Lee says the groom asked her what he should do, and she had a straightforward answer: “You have to tell everyone.”
Ms Lee also added the jobs of COVID compliance officer and contact tracer to her resume.
“People are coming out of bunkers taking everything,” she says.
“People are not turning away business.”
Weddings and politics a volatile mix
Politics and culture-wars have fuelled major disparities as restrictions differed state by state, county by county, even city by city.
Democratic areas swung into strict lockdown, while many Republican states delayed shutting down, and continued events as usual.
Data collated by an industry researcher, The Wedding Report, shows the lockdowns cut deeply, and while both red and blue states felt the pain, it wasn’t evenly shared.
The US usually has more than 2 million weddings a year, but 2020 saw a massive drop of about 900,000 weddings.
In 2019, the wedding industry brought in $US52.5 billion, dropping to less than half that in 2020, to $US25.7 billion.
Some states lost a quarter to a third of their business, while others lost more than half of all their weddings, especially the popular wedding destination states.
California’s wedding industry brought in $US7.1 billion ($73 billion) in 2019, but less than half that amount last year, down to $US3.2 billion.
Hawaii saw its industry more than halved in both revenue and events.
Hawaii is a popular wedding destination but its industry suffered during the pandemic.(Unsplash: Engin Yapici)
Wedding International Professionals Association president Meghan Ely says members of their 14 chapters were frustrated “1,000 per cent” by the patchwork of regulations, and it led to resentment.
Ms Ely says she saw a surge of wedding professionals leaving their jobs to go to other industries, such as real estate.
“Not only were some states able to stay open longer but they reopened early,” she said.
“So if they’re leading the way, with those awful COVID numbers, it wasn’t going to help the country, and the industry, in the long run.”
Georgia was one of the states that stayed open longer and re-opened early during the pandemic.
Republican Governor Brian Kemp issued an executive order in August, banning local governments from imposing masks or vaccine requirements.
Dixie Bagley, who owns a 121 hectare wedding venue in Rome, Georgia called The Farm, says the dynamics are different in the south where vaccines and masks have been treated with scepticism.
Micro-weddings have jumped in popularity as more couples seek COVID-safe nuptials.(Instagram: @thefarmromegadixie)
“What I heard was, ‘my friend got vaccinated and he got COVID and died,'” she said.
“The story here is, don’t get vaccinated, stay in, don’t go hanging around with 200 people on a weekend.”
One of her outdoor weddings last year was for 400 people and the bride was incensed that only 300 people turned up due to COVID-19 concerns.
They also had designer masks as wedding favours.
“All the masks went,” Ms Bagley says.
“But I only saw two people wearing masks and they’d brought those masks with them.
“The bride and groom put masks on for a photo opportunity then took them off.”
Ms Bagley says big weddings are such a part of southern culture that “small weddings were definitely shunned”.
But the pandemic has prompted a rethink and led couples to postpone weddings over safety concerns or go smaller. Micro-weddings have since jumped in popularity.
Ms Bagley says big weddings are a part of the culture of the south.(Instagram: @thefarmromegadixie)
“They didn’t want to expose Grandma and Grandpa to all of their co-workers,” she said.
Ms Bagley saw an opportunity and decided to host her first “elope-a-palooza” with events limited to 20-30 guests.
Her first attempt, advertised on social media, sold out in just four hours.
In October, her venue hosted 16 back-to-back weddings on one weekend, 90 minutes each from start to finish.
“It was like doing one elopement at a time — the couple, photographer, officiant and myself.”
‘The worst of the bottle-neck is now’
The front doors to Buttercream Bakery have been shut for well over a year now, but the kitchen in the Shaw district store in Washington, DC is in full swing, racing to meet dozens of wedding cake orders.
“It’s absolutely bonkers,” says chef and owner Tiffany MacIsaac, who has started to knock back business.
“I’ve turned away 20 per cent of requests, and it’s sacrilegious for me to pass up new orders.”
Tiffany MacIsaac says business is picking up after last year decimated their shop.(Instagram: @bttrcrmbakeshop via @anaisabelphotography)
Last year was rocky she says, as the kitchen fell silent in the pandemic lockdown, leading to a dozen cancellations and 40 to 50 postponed weddings.
Her staff of 23 dwindled to just five including herself and she admits she thought about quitting multiple times.
By the middle of this year, orders came roaring back as vaccines became widely available and lockdowns eased, spurring couples to call with last-minute orders.
One weekend, she catered to 15 weddings, and though still not back to a profit, the bakery is breaking even and has up to 100 new orders in the pipeline.
Certainly, Ms Ely says it has “never been busier in the wedding industry in the past two decades”.
“The worst of the bottle-neck is now,” she says.
Ms MacIsaac says it’s gotten to the point that people are “taking days off work because they want to get married this year”.
“We’ve had an unprecedented number of Thursday weddings,” she says.
But while business is booming, the problems caused by COVID are definitely not over.
COVID still the uninvited guest
With case counts down nationally and pandemic fatigue, Americans were banking on putting lockdowns in the rearview mirror.
But as the US heads into winter and indoors, health officials are warning the pandemic is not over.
At Ms MacIsaac’s bakery, ingredients have been held up by supply chain problems and an ad for staff in August received zero applicants.
In November, for the first time, a staff member tested positive for COVID.
“I had a total panic,” Ms MacIsaac says.
“I’ve got orders to fill. It’s not like a restaurant reservation for just an evening. People are counting on us.
“They’ve been planning their weddings sometimes for years in advance.”
The staff member tested negative days later and was back at work, but the prospect of disaster just when survival was in their grasp, had them on a knife’s edge.
Wedding DJ David Krieger knows all too well the anxiety of getting COVID at work.
Mr Krieger says DJing weddings is “what gives my life purpose”.(Supplied: Jenny Quicksall)
Though double-vaccinated, he contracted COVID two months ago at what he describes as a large, indoor, rowdy wedding with tables too close together.
He says it wiped him out for three days and he had to hire a replacement.
Mr Krieger lost a lot of work during the pandemic and says he was left frustrated and questioning his state’s leadership after he heard of fellow DJs in Georgia and Texas continuing to party as his work in LA shut down.
“The state just pretended the industry didn’t exist. It felt like we were abandoned. We were really hung out to dry,” he told the ABC.
“We went from ‘we’re all in this together,’ to ‘we don’t give a f*** about you,'” he says.
“They totally turned their back on us.”
Still, he sees his DJ business finally turning around after almost being wiped out, with the last of his postponed weddings in November and a start on new bookings.
Are weddings losing their allure?
As weddings rebound almost to pre-pandemic levels, 1.93 million weddings are forecast by the year’s end.
The Wedding Report outlook is even better for 2022, estimating a hefty increase to 2.47 million weddings and in 2023, 2.24 million weddings.
Mr Krieger says he has burned through his savings after COVID hit his business.(Supplied: Jenny Quicksall)
But The Wedding Report CEO Shane McMurray warns it won’t last.
“It’s manic for many businesses and will remain so for the next 12 to 18 months before it starts to settle back down to normal.”
Right now is peak proposal season in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day on February 14, but in the long term, marriage is on the wane.
The US marriage rate hit an historic low of 6.1 per 1,000 people in 2019, even before the pandemic.
For those determined to tie the knot this past 18 months, tens of thousands of Americans took their wedding vows in virtual ceremonies online.
Now at least, more families will be able to hear “I Do” in person.