Tracy Smith started perusing packs of mini hand sanitizer in April. They would be cute favors, she thought, for her June 20 wedding to Ben Kinney at The Tinsmith, a new venue on Madison’s east side. The couple had sent out “save the dates” to 225 guests.
“I thought they’d be kitschy, back when everyone thought it was going to blow over,” said Smith, 33. “Then when it didn’t, I thought, ‘Crap. I really do need hand sanitizer!’”
By the time Smith married Kinney, 31, in the Olin Park Pavilion, their guest list had been whittled to 50 people (Dane County’s legal limit at the time). Smith ordered masks for her bridesmaids in the shade of their dresses and fashioned another for herself out of remnants from her wedding gown. Guests set up lawn chairs to watch the ceremony under a canopy of trees while an open laptop Zoomed Smith and Kinney’s vows to aunts and uncles at home.
Stories about COVID-19’s effects on weddings have called the wildly contagious virus an “uninvited guest.” Dane County currently restricts public gatherings to 10 people or fewer indoors and 25 outside, not including venue employees. Brides and grooms have found themselves postponing, contracting the guest list, moving the celebration, then postponing again. It’s an emotional, financially devastating roller coaster for families and vendors alike.
In spring, many engaged couples optimistically pushed their dates to later in the year. As the pandemic stretches on, there’s been a proliferation of elopements and “microweddings” with a handful of family and close friends (the industry is branding this a “mini wedding” or “minimony”).
As weddings shrink, so does the income they generate. Weddings are a $74 billion industry in the United States, encompassing cater waiters and photographers, florists and officiants, party buses, dress shops, large venues and boutique hotels.
Of the 12 couples Madison wedding and event planner Sarah Davidson had booked in 2020, two decided to do backyard weddings. Another chose to have a ceremony but put off the reception for a year. The rest postponed everything: ceremony, reception, the works.
“No one has continued with what their plans were,” said Davidson, who founded her company, HUE by Sarah Davidson, in 2015. “For a lot of people, a wedding where their grandparents can’t attend, people are wearing masks, and they can’t hug people? That’s not the wedding they want.”
The new “I do”
Zola, a company that offers wedding registry and planning services, conducted a survey in its Facebook group earlier this summer. Of the 500-plus engaged couples with dates in June, July and August, 76% were still getting married in some fashion on their original date. (By comparison, just 30% of couples with spring dates went forward.)
In Dane County, marriage licenses are down by about 25% this year from the same months in 2019, a steeper slope on what was already a downward trend. Couples can apply for and receive a marriage license online but unlike in some metro areas, the ceremony itself can’t involve an online officiant — that still has to be in person.
“Some counties stopped doing marriage licenses for a while,” said Scott McDonell, Dane County Clerk. “We decided it was too much of a critical government function. People have important reasons to get married.”
Under the current order, weddings are subject to the 10/25 rule above. One exception is a religious ceremony, which could operate at 50% capacity. Following a legal threat from the Catholic Diocese of Madison, the county exempted churches and other places of worship from mass gathering limits.
Bethany Jurewicz, 36, was set to marry Matt Ambrosio, 35, on May 2 at Goodman Community Center’s Brassworks building with 130 family and friends in attendance. As COVID-19 cases trended up, they postponed to Aug. 15, same guest list, same venue.
Later they scrapped that and started planning a June 2021 wedding for 130. Jurewicz and Ambrosio (who is a Cap Times contributor) briefly considered having a “microwedding” this August before settling on a final date: Oct. 3, 2020, at Garver Feed Mill. The celebration will be mostly outside under tents. The guest list is in flux.
“We’re going to wait until we feel confident enough and let people know (the new date) by mid-August,” Jurewicz said. If it works by then to use the atrium for the ceremony, “households would each have their little lounge pod and then our ceremony would be in the middle of the atrium with lounge pods all around it.”
Garver, the renovated former sugar beet factory, is home base for Jurewicz, who works there as the director of public programming and community outreach. She’s been planning events for years.
“In the early stages of re-planning I was actually very excited about it,” Jurewicz said. “I was like, ‘Ooh! I get to plan my wedding again.’ And it meant I got to have it at my own venue, which was also exciting to me.
“But when we realized we had to cancel August — I’m 36 years old, and we want children. If we keep delaying the wedding because we want it to look a certain way with every friend and family member we want to be there, we’re affecting larger aspects of our life.
“Then it became kind of stressful.”
As couples bump their ceremonies into 2021, vendors are re-negotiating contracts and trying not to panic. Dana Gee, general manager of the Madison-based Wedding Planner & Guide, said the wedding industry had previously been “untouchable … people are always getting married, right?”
“Businesses and couples have lost unbelievable amounts of money,” Gee wrote in an email. “Employees of many venues and other wedding related businesses are furloughed, laid off or lost their jobs altogether. COVID and current regulations have been devastating to the wedding industry.”
Downsizing the big day
Toya Robinson and Patrice Harrell, both 48 of Watertown, were engaged and set to be married in early fall when Harrell’s mother passed away on April 2 from COVID-19.
“That hit home,” Harrell said. “We don’t want to contribute to having something and someone else getting sick.”
They wanted to keep their September date, even if they couldn’t have the 200-300 person reception they’d hoped for. So they’ve scheduled a small ceremony with Rev. Marcus Allen at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where Robinson sings praise and worship for online service. Allen told them they’ll be the third “COVID wedding” he’ll officiate this year.
“We decided to keep it small — us and the pastor and two witnesses,” Robinson said. “At the time, it wasn’t about me and what I wanted, it was about being there for him as he mourned his mom passing. I wasn’t like ‘Oh my gosh, what about my wedding?’ That would have been superficial and selfish.”
Robinson and Harrell plan to have a reception next year on their first anniversary. If that doesn’t work, they’ll have it the year following. But the party will happen.
“I’ve got 14 siblings,” Harrell said. A tiny wedding “would make a lot of people mad.”
Venues have been among the hardest hit by COVID closures. Dave Muehl, owner of Badger Farm LLC in Deerfield, said he’s lost $100,000. He’s been promoting what he named the “MiWe,” or mini wedding package, with five options for outdoor ceremony locations. He’s done a few of these so far and expects to do another handful this season.
“They’re like doing a Vegas-style wedding without the travel,” Muehl said. “But it’s a little more traditional than a justice of the peace or a judge. I think it could become a trend once COVID is done if the economy stays stagnant.
“It’s a way to have a nicer ceremony and reception, albeit a limited one. For people who are budget-minded, it could become much more popular.”
Badger Farm will discount whatever people spend on a mini wedding this year if they also book a larger reception next year. Muehl has suggested that couples might adapt to gathering restrictions by holding their wedding in time blocks, inviting some folks to the first part and a different, equal-sized group to the second. (He allowed this might work better for a graduation party, where people already tend to arrive in shifts.)
The challenge with outdoor weddings, of course, is weather. In Dane County, you couldn’t legally move all 25 guests inside. Then there’s dancing. Some brides and grooms are going with color-coded wristbands to let guests indicate how comfortable they are with contact. Green means “high fives and handshakes.” Red means “social distancing.”
“It’s virtually impossible to socially distance during a dance,” Muehl said. “They’re all family and now it’s a bigger family. It’s a time for togetherness and joy.
“People don’t want to be separated. They don’t want to have masks.”
The Tinsmith, a 9,000 square-foot venue on 828 E. Main St. with a capacity of 500, was supposed to have its first wedding on June 13. Instead, it opened its first season as a venue with a 10-person ceremony on July 18, followed by a Monday wedding of a similar size.
“We were never planning on being a 10-person event space,” said Jessica Wartenweiler, who owns The Tinsmith with Eric Welch. “That’s not how it was intended to be utilized.”
Wartenweiler and Welch adapted the greenhouse to be a more intimate space for a ceremony and small dinner. The income from a microwedding is significantly less, in part because small weddings are usually about three hours long, versus a typical six- to seven-hour traditional wedding.
“We’re trying to be as flexible as possible with couples, giving them the option of scaling back,” Wartenweiler said.
This was to have been a banner first year for The Tinsmith, which was booked nearly every Friday and Saturday through November. They’re now seeing double demand for 2021, with just a few peak season dates remaining. Wartenweiler anticipates more Thursday and Sunday weddings.
Asked about the impact of COVID, Wartenweiler said only The Tinsmith’s losses from 2020 are “significant.”
“It’s definitely the most challenging time I’ve ever been through, business-wise,” she said. “I’ve gone through all the emotions — denial, anger. I’m finally at acceptance. It’s been a difficult last couple of months.”
Even venues that could legally host bigger receptions aren’t necessarily doing it. Chicago attorneys Paul and Audrey Gaynor own an expansive event venue called White Oak Savanna in Iowa County outside of Spring Green. 2020 was going to be their year, Paul Gaynor said. They’d started to generate buzz.
Instead “we’re not doing any events,” including a film festival, folk music concerts and six weddings. They’ve all been canceled. “Until health professionals tell us it’s safe, we’re not doing them,” Gaynor said. “We’ve refunded all the money, except for people who wanted to roll over.”
White Oak Savanna can accommodate up to 400 wedding guests. The Gaynors have been getting calls from brides and grooms in Dane County who want to move their 2020 weddings.
“I believe it’s irresponsible,” Gaynor said. “It’s heartbreaking. But wouldn’t I be more heartbroken if I had an event because I can, and everybody comes here, and they get sick?
“And what are the insurance ramifications? What if someone sues me?”
Time to think
The unexpected boon of 2020 for wedding vendors — for some, the only positive thing — has been time. Wedding season tends to be relentless for photographers like Christine Dopp, who runs Natural Intuition Photography with her partner, Justin Hackbart.
“We’re doing more and more elopements in Wisconsin, adventure elopements too,” said Dopp. “We’re willing to hike bluffs. You get harnesses and hiking packs; it’s not unlike hiking like normal.”
As a team, Dopp and Hackbart have been taking over family photos for another photographer whose family is immunocompromised, splitting duties with her (that photographer edits, so she gets some of the income). Hackbart even got ordained through American Marriage Ministries. Now they can be photographers, witnesses and officiate, too.
“Wedding vendors have a unique opportunity,” Dopp said. “We’re doing style shoots in the summer we normally never got to have. We’ve been working with vendors on planning stuff for next year. We all get to play a little bit more.”
Erin Joswick has owned Daffodil Parker, a florist on West Washington Avenue, for 14 years. Joswick saw 90% of her events cancel or postpone this season, including more than 100 weddings.
“We offered a local farm CSA (community supported agriculture) share for Daffodil Parker,” Joswick said. That’s 10 weeks of flowers, July 17-Sept. 18, for $25/week. The shares sold out.
“We don’t usually do much retail,” Joswick said, “but we’re trying to drum up retail business to keep employees working and business alive week to week. That’s something we normally couldn’t handle during wedding season.”
Over the county line
Some couples who were set to marry this summer in Dane County moved their big, traditional wedding to a county with fewer restrictions. This has put vendors on edge, as some weigh livelihood and loss of income with personal risk. In the past few weeks, weddings in San Francisco, the Detroit area, Myrtle Beach and rural Montana have been linked to coronavirus outbreaks.
Unlike a guest who feels uncomfortable when reception dancing gets too close, a photographer hired for the day can’t leave. Melanie Jones has photographed weddings for five years and often works as a second shooter, assisting a primary photographer. She’s in the “I don’t feel good about this at all” camp.
“I’m not in a position to not do it,” Jones said. “I can’t refund the money. I didn’t get unemployment; I’m a sole provider so PPP didn’t apply to me. I was able to go back to my retail job… it’s keeping me afloat, but not enough to not do weddings right now.”
Sharon Vanorny has seen fellow photographers giving away larger weddings because they’re uncomfortable with the coronavirus risk. She’d booked a dozen weddings for 2020 but has worked only a few since the pandemic, including one in late March and Smith and Kinney’s wedding in June.
“I’m not an anxious person, so I don’t feel that worried,” Vanorny said. “I booked a couple for next year, and they put in their contract that if there was a pandemic they could get their money back. I was like, ‘Yes, of course.’ They might do a smaller wedding and I will shoot it, or I will wear a mask at their big wedding.”
For a photographer to shoot a wedding, particularly one indoors, while trying to maintain their own physical distance is nearly impossible. Long lenses work OK for outside, but to capture a bride coming down the aisle in a church means standing close to her wedding party and guests. And those further-away shots, many photographers say, look about as good as something taken with a friend’s iPhone: it’s not what their clients are paying for.
To lose the income a large wedding generates is stressful. Yet the weddings themselves can be, too.
“It’s putting people in a tough spot,” Jones said. “And not all wedding couples can rebook everything, either. Some are like, ‘We already paid for everything, we’re just going to do it.’ I wish there were other options for me that weren’t potentially tanking my reputation and/or costing me thousands of dollars.
“I understand people have bills to pay,” Jones added. “But it also feels like some people are so concerned about money, they don’t care if people who walk in their doors are healthy or not.”
One of the biggest changes caterer Carmell Jackson has noticed with Madison weddings this summer is speed.
“When you are catering for a wedding, you have planning time, picking out your plates, getting your number of people, going back and forth on the menu,” said Jackson, who has run Melly Mells Catering for more than six years. “Because it’s so small and intimate now, it’s more like someone calling and ordering food. It’s more informal.”
COVID-19 is a bad pairing with buffet style dining, a historically efficient way to feed a big reception. Some caterers stay and serve; Jackson typically does not.
“You don’t want people lined up and getting food,” Jackson said. Recently she’s been making more boxed lunch-style, grab-and-go meals.
“But it’s going to cost a little more, because you have to buy containers,” she said. “I just got some Friday and one case of containers was $91. It’s so much more you have to spend to keep people safe.”
Teresa Pullara-Ouabel, owner of Bunky’s Catering, is breaking out the vintage plates, linens and real silverware this summer. What wouldn’t work for a 250-person reception is doable for 22.
“We tried to be green,” Pullara-Ouabel said. For a recent wedding at the East Side Club, “the plates weren’t as beautiful wrapped, but we did a Meditteranean combo, a beautiful salad, falafel, grape leaves, hummus, baba ghanoush.”
For that couple, Bunky’s shifted from a big reception to a small, all-vegetarian post-wedding dinner. Pullara-Ouabel and her husband also masked up to work a backyard buffet at another wedding, encouraging kids not to grab at the food. For now, Bunky’s is not taking any weddings bigger than 25 people.
David Rodriguez, owner of Melted Craft Grilled Cheese Cart, the International Food Bus and Taco Local, has tried to be as flexible with clients as possible. If they have to transfer to another date or are worried about their deposit, he’ll work with them.
“When we finally do a wedding next August that was rescheduled four times, they’ll remember — ‘Oh my gosh, they worked with us, they changed their set-up,’” Rodriguez said. “At this point I’m fighting for my survival. We would look at any opportunity and determine if we could do it safely. I can’t just say, ‘That’s 250 people, I’m turning it down.’”
Rodriguez is in the process of moving Taco Local into a brick and mortar space (formerly Underground Butcher) on Williamson Street. The Wisconsin Dells location of Melted at the Grateful Shed Truckyard has been keeping the businesses afloat.
“We’re lucky we have these food trucks,” Rodriguez said. “We can definitely keep our staff safe and serve safe food to people.”
Same time next year
Coty Roberts and Andre (Andy) Wehrle, both 34 of Madison, got engaged around Christmas 2019 and wanted to get married this November in Lake Geneva. They were just about to tour venues when COVID shut things down. Roberts hadn’t even started dress shopping yet.
“All the plans are on hold for now,” Roberts said. “It stinks. I wanted to get married in 2020. I wanted us to move forward; I didn’t want to be engaged for two years.”
Roberts is immunocompromised, so large gatherings at this time are a greater concern. And she doesn’t do outdoors — “I am not one with nature,” she said. “I want an indoor wedding. And my family and friends, we’re close, we hug, we want to dance the night away.”
For that, they’re thinking fall of 2021.
“There haven’t been a lot of weddings in my family,” said Roberts, whose parents married at city hall. “It’s important for the ceremony to be a true celebration. We’re willing to wait to have it the way we want it.”
Moving celebrations a year from the original date has been a common tactic for couples who want to preserve their seasonal wedding aesthetic (Roberts’ colors are purple and gold — “I never wanted to be a summer bride,” she said).
Tia Ranney, director of events operations at Garver Feed Mill, said several of the venue’s weddings pushed to the same weekend in 2021.
“Most people want to have the day they originally envisioned, so they’re moving more toward rescheduling,” Ranney said. “For future weddings, a lot of people are hesitant to book a venue. They have the opportunity to see how things turn out.”
Jurewicz is using her own wedding in October as a kind of test case for what Garver weddings could look like going forward, especially if they use the patio. She’s working with Event Essentials for tents.
“I think we’ll see a trend away from large groups of people sitting together and eating together,” she said. “You’ll have couples with a table of two, families with tables of four or six.
“It’s interesting to think about how weddings have this formula, and perhaps it’s a formula because most people aren’t event planners,” Jurewicz said. “For me, an event planner planning her own wedding, it’s a way to think outside the box and how I can do this a bit differently? Doing smaller tables like you’re in a huge restaurant, or doing soft seating in small pods for a ceremony, are interesting to me long term as well.
“If we do this, it could be cool to do ceremonies this way in Garver moving forward.”
Dotti Jacob, 32, and Kim Rose, 34, got engaged at The Shamrock Bar & Grille on June 20 in a sweet, private moment documented by a photographer and attended by a couple of (masked) friends.
The couple had talked about a destination wedding in January 2021 in Colorado, but “that’s not going to happen,” Jacob said.
“It would be crazy to try to plan something without knowing, especially traveling,” she said. “We are still planning a destination wedding but we’re targeting January 2022. If we push it out a year, gives us a little more time, and we’re hopeful things will be better then.”
Smith, the bride who got married on June 20, spent an extraordinary amount of energy talking to her guests about the precautions they were taking. They put ice in individual baggies and purchased dozens of paper masks. They made signs: “sanitize often, keep your distance.” Smith’s mother-in-law skipped a cousin’s funeral in Iowa two weeks before the wedding, fearful of exposure.
The afternoon of the rehearsal dinner, one of Kinney’s friends was the first to arrive. He came in for a hug.
“We had a little consent conversation about hugs,” Smith said. “I decided, I’m going to hug people this weekend. I can acknowledge it’s not the safest, but it’s emotionally nourishing. There’s something to say about the power of touch.”
Days after Smith and Kinney’s wedding, Dane County reported a steep spike in COVID-19 cases driven by young people. Public Health increased restrictions again. Smith said she was anxious, beating herself up. She knew she couldn’t assume they’d be “one of the lucky ones.”
After the wedding, “I was sick with worry for a week wondering, ‘Did we do the right thing? Was that really reckless and we just endangered all our friends and family?’” Smith said. “As tests rolled in, ‘I’m negative, I’m negative,’ the worry lifted off me.”
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