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Weddings in the age of coronavirus: Saying 'I do' may have to wait

Taylor Palmer was set to be married to the man of her dreams April 10. Thousands of dollars had been spent and 165 people from around the country invited. Everything, including Palmer’s dress, the venue, the flowers, the photographer, the music, the food was in place and ready to go.

But then news of the coronavirus outbreak started filtering the airwaves last month, suddenly forcing Palmer to make an unfathomable decision: to cancel the wedding she had been waiting her life to plan.

“You throw a wedding to have all your loved ones there,” Palmer said. “But knowing we had people who had to fly to be at the wedding, elderly people — one of them being my 85-year-old grandmother, who is my absolute best friend in the whole world and who I didn’t want to put at risk — we started thinking it wasn’t a good idea to have the wedding anymore.”

As the pandemic has sent the economy into a tailspin, couples who have spent thousands of dollars in nonrefundable deposits and months planning every detail of what is likely one of the biggest days of their lives have been forced to make some of the most difficult decisions about whether to cancel or put their weddings on hold.

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised against gatherings of 10 people or more, tens of thousands of weddings nationwide have either been canceled or postponed, affecting the $100 billion-a-year U.S. wedding industry, said Emilie Berman, a spokesperson from The Knot, a popular wedding planning website. 

Nearly 350,000 U.S. weddings and more than 600,000 international weddings, based on the 15 markets The Knot serves, were set to take place throughout April and May, "so we know this pandemic is impacting many couples and small businesses,” Berman said. 

“As new findings arise and government recommendations evolve, couples are increasingly following recommendations from the CDC and federal government, and postponing,” Berman said. “While we understand this is an emotional and uncertain time, (couples’) top priority should be their health and safety along with that of their guests." 

For Taylor Sisson and her fiancé, Jeff Martone of Vernon, that’s exactly why they postponed their 140-guest, April 18 wedding scheduled at the Branford House on Groton's University of Connecticut at Avery Point campus, one of the region's most popular wedding venues. 

“The reception is to be around everyone you love and that’s always what I envisioned and wanted,” Sisson said. “I didn’t want to lose that aspect of our friends and family there with us.”

But in the world of often-complicated wedding planning, where every vendor, including florists, DJs, bands, bakers and caterers, must be on the same page to pull off an event, Sisson said rescheduling what’s now been more than a year of wedding planning to an Aug. 7 date has been surprisingly smooth. 

"It’s bringing us something to look forward to and some positivity in what's a lousy situation,” Sisson said. “By some really lucky chance every single vendor is available and willing to reschedule the wedding.”

Sisson, a 26-year-old, third-grade teacher in Vernon, met Martone, 28, who works for Hartford Hospital, while they were studying as undergrads at UConn in 2013. 

Friends at first, they fell in love four years ago and chose to marry at the Branford House because of its ties to their alma mater that brought them together.

But venues, too, have been thrown through a loop trying to reschedule, while encouraging and supporting couples during this uncertain time.

In an effort to smooth things out for the nine couples forced to cancel or postpone their March and April weddings, Branford House manager Katherine Pollard said UConn, which owns the Branford House, has adopted a full refund policy for its couples affected by this “unprecedented” situation. It won’t charge extra if a couple decides to postpone their now off-season weddings to peak season, as was the case with Sisson and Martone.

“Normally, it’s all nonrefundable,” Pollard said. “But because of the circumstances, the university is giving full refunds back.”

Pollard said six of the nine couples affected by the situation have decided to postpone their wedding to later dates in the year, while the other three still are deciding how best to proceed.

“We are trying to help them as best we can," Pollard said. "We know it’s a hard time for them."

'We are ready to be married'

But for Palmer, 30, and Ortolani, 28, of Waterford, who have decided to cancel their April 10 wedding, the process hasn’t been so straightforward. While postponing has meant brides-to-be have had to work with various vendors at once to reschedule to a day that works for everyone involved, canceling altogether also means losing out on thousands in deposits.

Palmer said while most of her vendors have been flexible and accommodating, her booked venue, Villa Bianca of Seymour, and her photographer hadn’t informed her yet whether she and her fiancé will receive a refund on what’s typically nonrefundable deposits: in this case, $1,250 for the photographer and $3,000 for the venue.

Additionally, Palmer said she has spent thousands on table decorations, party favors, pajamas for her bridesmaids and ties for groomsmen, as well as her wedding dress — a $1,550 purchase — among other items and bookings.

“We understand how all this is impacting their businesses,” Palmer said. “But we believe we reserve the right to choose when we want to be married. And if we don’t want to move forward with a date, I think we reserve the right to say these are unforeseen circumstances, and we just need our money back to protect ourselves.”

In Palmer and Ortolani’s situation, the two have decided they want to marry as soon as possible, even if that means forgoing having their family and friends present.

“We don’t want to push this out and prolong it. We are ready to be married,” Palmer said. “Rescheduling is not an option for us.”

Palmer said even though she and Ortolani are planning a private ceremony either in their backyard or in a nearby field, the decision to forgo the wedding of their dreams hasn’t been without a range of difficult emotions. 

"For it to come crashing down like this is definitely a huge disappointment," Palmer said. "But now that I’m a couple days out from having to make those initial phone calls about canceling, I think I’m just processing. I have good moments and I have bad moments."

Having met in Nov. 2018 through mutual friends — both work at Electric Boat in Groton — the couple has been inseparable since the day they met. They now rent a home together in Quaker Hill. 

“It was 100 percent love at first sight,” Palmer said. “If you had asked me that very night I would have said that’s crazy but in hindsight, I 100 percent believe I fell in love with him the moment I met him. 

“My message to anyone else who is dealing with the same thing is to focus on the love that you have with the person you are going to marry,” Palmer said. “If you get married now or later, love is what it’s all about.”

Working together 

Maggie Conley, a popular Stonington-based wedding photographer, said she and her fellow wedding photographers also are taking a hard hit from the uncertainty of the times. 

“People are holding off on putting down deposits for their weddings because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” Conley said. “And that’s been making it hard for those of us in this industry.”  

Conley said wedding photography is a seasonal market, where most of the money is made between April and November and then income dwindles. 

"Generally, March is when we all run out of cash," she said. "My lowest months for income are January, February and March. But March is also when we start taking deposits for the following year, and that usually gets us through the winter along with our savings." 

So far, Conley estimates she’s lost around $10,000 in what she typically makes in deposits this time of year. 

“I’ve had somewhere between eight or 10 conversations for weddings next year that would normally have gone to contract, but now couples are waiting,” she said. 

In an effort to help alleviate the confusion, uncertainty and anxiety, Conley said wedding planners and caterers, such North Stonington’s A Thyme to Cook, have been reaching out to as many brides as possible to help support and inspire excitement for a fall-themed wedding, as well as help them work through booking new venues, if need be.

“Normal wedding planning can already be taxing on couples, so we are trying to help them as much as we can,” Conley said. “We have a really, really strong community of people that are really kind and who are working together to help couples during this time. It’s always an honor to come alongside people during this special time in their lives. So people have been really positive and supportive of one another.”

Linda Sample, president of A Thyme to Cook, agreed. While her company is trying to work as flexibly as possible with dozens of clients, it is taking a hit as already booked clients are holding off on sending in final deposits for summer weddings and prospective clients are waiting to book.

She explained that rescheduling weddings also has been challenging, as it has required her to help brides, in some cases, find new wedding venues. There's also now the added pressure of choosing a second date.

“The worst thing to happen would be to call the bride up later in the year and tell them they had to postpone again,” she said. “We are just hoping we can really work with everyone. We are trying to be as flexible as possible without also being taken advantage of. The most important thing is to have a happy bride.”

Love in the time of coronavirus

Instead of canceling or postponing their wedding, East Lyme-native Adam Quinn and his now-wife Dana Cohen decided to bump up their wedding by more than two months to ensure they were married before the coronavirus hit the East Coast.

The couple, who live in Brooklyn, started becoming increasingly concerned about hosting a late May wedding as news broke about the spread of the virus in January and February. 

“I read a report that said May would be the peak of coronavirus infections here in the U.S.,” Quinn said. “We were watching everything shut down in China, and we were like, ‘this could very much potentially happen here.’ But it was still early.”

“Our wedding date was in the near but somewhat distant future,” Cohen added. “But as we saw coronavirus unfold, we became increasingly worried.”

Adding another twist to their situation Cohen, who is 37, said she was paying into a state insurance plan and had worried her plan wouldn’t grant her great coverage in the event she needed hospitalization. 

“We started having conversations asking what would happen if it wouldn’t be safe for 150 people to gather in a room? And, ‘Are we crazy to even think this?’” she said. 

Engaged since November, Quinn, a 2000 graduate from East Lyme High School who works for the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and Cohen, a sustainable handbag designer, have been together for two years. 

The couple was planning a May 24 wedding at a hotel in Williamsburg for which they had put down a deposit earlier this year and were on the cusp of signing contracts with photographers, DJs and florists, requiring pricey deposits to lock in their date. But they decided to hold off with the looming uncertainty.  

 “We had to trust our instincts this was the right thing to do,” Quinn said. “At the time, I think the news was downplaying a lot of it, but we were pretty concerned.”

On March 1, as Cohen’s parents happened to be visiting the city from Florida, the couple decided they would marry impromptu style at the Brooklyn Municipal Building that upcoming Friday, March 6. 

The story of their wedding, which featured a second-hand bridesmaids’ outfit as Cohen’s wedding dress and mood rings bought on Canal Street in place of wedding bands, has since spread internationally after it made the front page of the March 8 New York Sunday Times.

“Wedding planning is a lot of time and effort, and all the pomp and circumstance feels removed from the actual thing you are celebrating,” Cohen said Wednesday by phone as the couple celebrated their honeymoon in their apartment while on self-quarantine. “Doing it this way brought us back to our true core values and it was lovely.” 

“I was worried our parents wouldn’t have a good time but they had a great time,” Quinn added. “It was absurd and strange, but everyone was really happy to be there. I like to think we inspired some people to follow their hearts and get married in the face of coronavirus."

m.biekert@theday.com

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