As the world braces for an uncertain future with the outbreak of COVID-19, the wedding industry, among many others, is getting hit hard by the ripple effect of the pandemic.
To help reduce the spread of the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended canceling all gatherings in areas with substantial levels of community transmission. In lower-risk areas, the CDC has advised Americans to limit gatherings to under 10 people between March 16-31, based on guidelines from the White House.
A wedding can take months — or even years — to plan, and it’s often a big financial investment for the engaged couple and their families. But these large gatherings of treasured friends and family aren’t considered safe right now, especially for guests over age 65, who face higher risk for severe illness. Many engaged duos must make the difficult decision to cancel, postpone, or dramatically alter their big day.
If your original plan was to get married in 2020, you’re not alone in these scary times. For all engaged people, it’s important to understand your contractual rights and the consequences of changing your wedding day. To help you make the best decision for your situation, we spoke with wedding planners, lawyers, and engaged couples who are being forced to rethink their plans due to the coronavirus.
The Impact of COVID-19 on American Weddings
Kevin Dennis, president of the Wedding International Professionals Association, says the best way to describe weddings in the time of a pandemic is “a screeching halt.” With restrictions on international travel as well as city and state ordinances limiting gatherings, many celebrations within the next three months have been gravely impacted, Dennis says.
For example, Florida hosted more than 170,000 weddings in 2019 and was on track to do the same in 2020, according to Shannon Tarrant, owner of WeddingVenueMap.com, which helps couples locate venue options in the Sunshine State. But out-of-town guests will now find major theme parks and other attractions, including Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort, closed until at least the end of March.
“All of these restrictions and closings have led to the postponement and cancellation of hundreds of weddings,” Tarrant says. “With no end in sight, it has left not only the couples but also the businesses without a clear plan of next steps.”
Florida’s wedding industry isn’t the only one that’s suffering. New York-based wedding vow coach and officiant Tanya Pushkine, who helps couples around the world put their love into words, says every wedding she had on the books for March, April, May, and June has been rescheduled or canceled outright.
Couples who are due to wed in the summer or fall are likely feeling nervous about what’s ahead, especially since researchers have shown that interventions like social distancing will need to be maintained until a vaccine for COVID-19 is ready — which could take 18 months or longer.
The ultimate choice — to go forth, or to forgo — is a confusing one to make in a time of limbo. However, sometimes the decision is taken out of your hands due to local policies, as Los Angeles-based event designer Eddie Zaratsian points out. At the heart of celebrations moving forward will be compromise and quick decisions.
“Couples will have to be more flexible than ever when it comes to moving forward with or without certain guests,” Zaratsian says. “They’ll need to be flexible with their choices — from the flowers for their bouquets to their menus. Availability may be limited with some of their first choices.”
On top of everything, Dennis says many clients are experiencing delays with their wedding gowns, since the production factories for many brands are located in China. He estimates delays as short as six weeks and as long as four months. To minimize this impact on your wedding, Dennis suggests calling quickly to see if a last-minute cancellation is possible and finding an off-the-rack option instead.
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What You Should Do Before Changing Your Wedding Plans
First and foremost, Tarrant says the initial conversation should be between the two people promising their lives to one another. She suggests starting with questions like these:
- If we postpone, how flexible can we be on the new date?
- How long are we willing to wait?
- Do we have room in our budget if we lose deposits or payments?
Before hopping on calls with vendors, friends, or family members, Tarrant stresses the importance of couples being on the same page and coming across as a united force. She warns that conversations with vendors aren’t going to be easy ones, since everyone is feeling their wallets stretching thin.
“Couples should brace themselves for the potential of losing deposits or paying rescheduling fees,” Tarrant says. “While many vendors in the wedding industry are doing their best to be accommodating, not every small business can afford to lose future-date event revenue by rescheduling without penalties.”
What’s Covered in Your Wedding Vendor Contracts?
Reading your contracts, of course, is the best way to learn what rights you have. But, if you’re like most Americans who haven’t gone to law school, the fine-print details may be difficult to comprehend. Every contract is different, so you could have signed over a dozen pieces of paper, depending on the extensiveness of your planning process.
Even so, you should read over specific sections, according to trademark, copyright, and media attorney Caroline J. Fox of Richmond, Virginia. Here’s what to look for — but keep in mind that all this language can vary by state, so it’s in your best interest to hire a lawyer if you need to fight a contract.
Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a qualified attorney.
You’ve likely heard this term before — but do you know what it means?
“Force majeure is a clause in a contract that excuses or delays a party’s performance, or permits cancellation of the contract, without penalty,” Fox says. Basically, it means both parties will let each other off the hook if something specific happens that would make it dangerous to fulfill their contract.
“Usually, these specific situations are listed out in the contract, and include events like fire, flood, civil insurrection, acts of government authority, and other acts of God,’” she says. However, with the advent of vaccines and modern medicine, epidemics or pandemics aren’t always included in these provisions. Even so, Fox says that doesn’t mean force majeure doesn’t apply.
“Look for broadening language, like ‘including but not limited to’ the named clauses, or phrases like ‘government mandate,’ ‘government action,’ or ‘trade restriction,’ as these could apply in the event of ‘gathering bans,’ flights grounded by government order, or severely delayed shipments of goods,” she suggests.
Impossibility and frustration of purpose
Maybe your contract doesn’t contain a force majeure clause, but don’t lose hope. Fox says many legal doctrines have “contractual impossibility” and “frustration of purpose” sections, which she defines as a person’s or company’s inability to fulfill their responsibilities under contract — so they should be excused. The keyword here is “impossible.”
“It’s not ‘harder,’ not ‘our guests were dropping like flies and only half can attend,’ and not ‘everything else was closed and no one would have fun,’” Fox says. “It means ‘the governor just outlawed events of 50-plus people, so our 200-person wedding is now forbidden by law,’ or ‘domestic flights have been cut back and we can’t get there.’”
Explicit nonrefundable deposit clauses
Let’s say you reach out to a vendor to cancel their services, and you want your deposit back. If they decline and tell you that the deposit is nonrefundable, your contract must have proof of that. Ask the vendor to point out exactly where it says “nonrefundable” and explain what terms qualify and which ones don’t, Fox says.
“Typically, a cancellation or postponement due to an overabundance of caution will incur some sort of financial penalty, while a cancellation or postponement due to force majeure or impossibility may trigger different financial events,” she says.
Fox urges couples to look at the small terms toward the back of their contracts — the boilerplate that no one usually reads. “That’s what will be critical at this point, for both you and your vendors,” she says.
Fox says vendors most likely have a duty to mitigate damages in any sort of unforeseeable contract modification, regardless of where you are in the process. This means that your event vendors must try — if they have the ability — to “stop the bleeding.”
“When you ask to cancel or postpone, a vendor can’t just say ‘too bad, so sad!’ and continue on as normal,” she says. “They must provide that good-faith effort to adjust what they can when we’re looking at force majeure, impossibility, frustration, or other notice of cancellation or postponement.”
For example, if a florist hasn’t put in an order for flowers yet, they can stop their work and refund the money. Or, if a caterer hasn’t ordered all the ingredients, they can stop production — saving money and food waste.
How Wedding Insurance Squares Up To a Pandemic
Unfortunately, wedding insurance is one of those items that falls in the “you snooze, you lose” bucket. As with any other type of insurance, wedding insurance is only available before a disaster strikes, not after, Tarrant says. If you did invest in wedding insurance, she says now is the time to read every last line — not once, not twice, but until you thoroughly understand it.
“Couples probably signed up without really being sure about what all those terms and conditions actually meant,” Tarrant says. “They really need to focus now on what is and is not covered by the policy they have purchased in regards to cancellation or postponement.”
So, does wedding insurance cover a pandemic? Fox says it depends on your policy, so check the exclusions list. If it includes communicable diseases or epidemics, COVID-19 implications probably aren’t covered. However, if that’s the case, don’t give up just yet.
“Don’t be afraid to challenge the insurance company if they refuse to cover you,” Fox says. “They often refuse just to see who will simply walk away, especially in times of increased claims. Consult a plaintiff’s attorney about what your insurance will cover, since they often provide free consultations.”
How Engaged Couples Are Navigating the Age of Coronavirus
Samantha Perry and Dave Nelson had planned to exchange vows on April 4 at the Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center in Beaufort, North Carolina. However, the couple ultimately decided to postpone their 100-person event to maintain the health and safety of their community during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Perry says she called the guests, while their wedding planner contacted the vendors. So far, she has been comforted by the graciousness of everyone involved. While the couple’s vendors are keeping their deposits, they still have a wedding to look forward to, hopefully, at the end of 2020.
At the same time, Perry and Nelson wanted to wed now, so they took the opportunity to exchange vows in a private courtyard, rather than going to the magistrate’s office as they had planned. While this wasn’t their ideal situation, the two were still excited to make it official.
Zaratsian says many couples will decide to make impromptu changes so they can marry now and have the celebration later. He predicts there will be creative solutions in the months to come, from eloping to hosting a live feed for wedding guests.
Another couple, Kristin and Eric, had planned an April 10 wedding that was postponed to Nov. 21. Kristin says it happened very quickly. On March 8, they discussed COVID-19 concerns with their East Northport, New York, venue. On March 10 — the due date of their RSVPs — Kristin started working from home and realized the severity of the situation. By March 12, they emailed the venue to explore their options.
“We decided to move our wedding because, although we are relatively young and healthy, we could never live with ourselves if our wedding was the reason someone got sick,” Kristin says. “We also wanted to make sure our closest loved ones could attend without fear.”
The couple’s vendors are keeping their deposits since the wedding is still set to happen, but they’ve waived rescheduling fees in light of the pandemic.
“Every single vendor has been understanding and has allowed us to put the money towards the new date,” Kristin says. “They have all expressed that we need to do what is best for ourselves and our guests, and they are available on our new date.”
Stefanie Bucholski and Mike Reisman faced a similar situation, having planned a Tuckahoe, New Jersey, wedding for March 28. Like Kristin, Bucholski says everything unfolded over a matter of days. After taking some time to process everything, Bucholski and Reisman decided to move their big day to Dec. 5. Though it felt like hitting rock-bottom for Bucholski, she knows their choice was the only one they could make.
“One of our vendors worked a wedding this past Saturday, and she said in addition to 22 people canceling on the couple last minute, the mood was generally somber,” Bucholski says. “This is the last thing I want for our wedding. I want our guests to be comfortable and feel safe, and of course have a great time. That didn’t seem possible under these circumstances.”
The couple plans to hold a smaller ceremony with family and a few close friends on the original date. While Bucholski and Reisman will suffer some financial losses and won’t be able to use their top-choice photographer, most of their other vendors were available and understanding.
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The Bottom Line on Postponing or Cancelling Your Wedding
The coronavirus is making a huge impact on all levels of the wedding industry. If you’re facing the emotional decision of postponing, cancelling, or altering your big day, remember that you’re not alone. You still have your partner, and many other couples are in the same boat.
Since things aren’t going as planned, it’s important to read through your contracts, do what you can to save your deposits, and remain hopeful. As the world continues to learn about COVID-19 and fight it, the party will eventually go on.