Published: Thursday, Feb. 25th, 2021
by Jessica Levey
Wedding professionals across the country are growing increasingly frustrated, sharing one major concern: the severe lack of industry-specific guidance from their local governments. Without leadership, communication, or direction from authorities, they say the wedding industry has ultimately been left to fend for itself throughout the pandemic. It’s no wonder that frustrations continue to rise as the 2021 wedding season begins amid inconsistent restrictions, new closures, and ongoing financial hardship.
Some professionals are responding by taking matters into their own hands -- reaching out to local governments directly, organizing coalitions, signing petitions, and adapting with the hope of safely increasing wedding sizes. This has resulted in the loosening of restrictions in some areas and a few creative new solutions. But it’s also highlighting key questions about safety.
In Rhode Island, exasperated industry professionals formed the Rhode Island Coalition of Wedding and Event Professionals (RICWEP) during the later half of 2020. They held rallies on public sidewalks, drawing the attention first of local news stations and then national news outlets, trying to raise awareness about industry difficulties.
In Richmond, Virginia, vendors recently issued a statement to Governor Northam asking him to address what they see as unfair treatment of wedding venues. Venue owners told their local news station, 8News, that most of them didn’t qualify for the state’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grants intended to help struggling small businesses, because of guidelines written for more conventional ‘ticketed venues.’ And while they say they’re willing to follow any of the safety procedures given to businesses like indoor sports venues or restaurants, which operate under different capacity guidelines, they haven’t been permitted to do so.
In Hampton, Virginia, worried vendors have started online petitions, hoping to gain enough public support to be reclassified under the same guidelines as restaurants, which are currently held to a percentage of capacity, as opposed to the stricter 10-person rule for social gatherings. They told the Daily Press that grappling with rapidly changing guidelines for social gatherings makes wedding planning even more difficult.
In Connecticut, wedding professionals are also speaking out, saying that they felt ignored and overlooked last year, with most of the effort and attention to reopen directed toward restaurants and retail. In nearby Vermont, the concerns are echoed, with vendors and event planners saying that tighter restrictions on wedding venues are even causing some couples to move their weddings out of state.
And in southern Florida and the Caribbean, professionals formed the Caribbean Weddings and Event Professionals (CWEP) advocacy group. Frustrated by the lack of guidance, they banded together to help vendors share resources and information, network, and define new industry standards. The group’s founder, Natalie John, recently released a handbook on COVID safety practices, and other prominent board members continue to work closely with the local tourism and travel industries.
Wedding vendors gather with signs and microphones outside the RI State House during a December RICWEP rally.
In some cases, these organized efforts to speak out are resulting in policy changes and innovative solutions.
For example, after continuous efforts by RICWEP to meet and speak with their local chamber of commerce, legislators, and public health officials, safety guidelines in the state were modified to address and accommodate weddings and receptions specifically. With the addition of specially trained safety staff at weddings -- an innovative solution -- and a 48 hour negative COVID testing policy, a cap on guest attendance at weddings was successfully raised in February from 15 to 50 people.
In Connecticut, Governor Ned Lamont recently announced that capacity and gathering restrictions on wedding venues would loosen in early March, allowing up to 100 people at indoor gatherings (up to 50% of venue capacity) and 200 people at outdoor gatherings.
And in New York, wedding restrictions were also loosened in early February to accommodate up to 150 guests after complaints from vendors. Still, frustration endures for vendors in the state, who say the logistics for implementing these new rules remain unclear. As reported by WIVB in Albany, new requirements for rapid testing of guests, applications to the Department of Health for individual event approval, and other changes, were made before standard guidance for wedding professionals was offered.
Similar changes appear to be on the horizon in other states, as well.
States’ reluctance to increase wedding size makes sense. Larger gatherings of people, especially those that last for a longer duration of time, or take place indoors, have been shown to greatly increase the risk of spreading the virus. It’s also worth noting that unlike event halls and venues, restaurants and places like grocery stores are considered essential businesses, and most of their staff have additional training from public health departments on general cleanliness and COVID specific safety.
While many vendors are excited to get back to bigger weddings, others remain skeptical and worried about the safety risks.
In AMM’s most recent survey of professional officiants, 54% of officiants responded that they were worried or sometimes worried about their health at work, and most of them said that couples shared their concerns. 60% of respondents said they were spending less time working with couples.
Balancing these two needs -- those of struggling wedding businesses, and for maintaining public safety -- takes time. As these vocal professionals are demonstrating, it also takes open channels of communication.
Effective communication will provide officials with a better understanding of what makes the wedding industry work, resulting in clearer guidance from health departments. It may also result in more targeted financial assistance, such as modified venue grants, that allows businesses to continue operating at smaller capacity without immediate risk of closure. And working solutions, such as COVID safety staff introduced by RICWEP, and the rapid testing policies in New York, will hopefully begin to emerge.
As the pandemic continues, one thing remains clear -- despite being leaderless, the wedding industry can, and is, adapting.
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