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A Wedding During COVID-19? Learn from Two Couples

Elora and Paulo Webb’s wedding plans couldn’t have been more different from Alex and Maggie Clegg’s. But one thing these couples have in common is that COVID-19 radically changed their big day — and their budget.

Elora and Paulo Webb

Location: Tuna Canyon Park, Calif.

Pre-COVID-19 budget: $6,000

Approximate actual cost: $1,300

When Elora and Paulo got engaged in September 2019 in Seattle, they thought they would get married the following August. They knew they wanted a small, nontraditional ceremony, and as they considered locations, they focused on places that were special to them.

They decided on the trails of Tuna Canyon, a place Elora recalled as "magical" and "whimsical," from the time she and Paulo spent together there when they first started dating. But Southern California is hot in August, so they pushed the date up to March.

Five months is a short timeline, but as a development associate for a production company in Bellevue, Wash., Elora is used to coordinating multiple projects at once, so she was confident she could organize a low-key wedding in that time.

A Hike and a Party

The plan was to invite about 60 guests to join them on an easy hike in the canyon, enjoy a ceremony they wrote for themselves, and head back to Paulo's parents' house for a party.

Elora had her dress by October. Soon after, she scheduled the food truck for $1,600 (not including the tip) and bought $600 worth of beer and wine. They didn't want to overwhelm the house's septic system, so they also rented a luxury bathroom on a trailer for $1,100.

"One of the biggest ticket items was the toilet," Elora joked.

The Big Decision

Whispers of the coronavirus started creeping into conversation in February. But, at that time, it still seemed like a faraway problem, not something to worry about in the U.S.

"We were going to trust the experts." Elora said. "We figured we would proceed until the government said to shut down."

That's exactly what happened. On March 4, California Gov. Gavin Newsome declared a state of emergency, and counties across the state started issuing stay-home orders. Many counties started banning gatherings of more than 10 people.

Infection rates were soaring, and Elora and Paulo were worried about the health of their family and friends. They just couldn't put their loved ones at risk. On March 15, after a difficult family meeting, they decided to call it off. It was six days before their wedding day.

"We wrote to everyone at 10 p.m. and said, 'Officials are saying it's not safe. We need to be responsible people and heed their advice. We love you all. We'll try again later in the year,'" Elora said.

They found out later that Paulo's parents had contracted the virus and would have been carrying it during the wedding.

Wedding at Home

A few days later, as infection rates intensified, Elora and Paulo started feeling anxious.

"I thought, 'God forbid one of us gets this. I want to have access to you,'" Elora said.

They applied for a Washington marriage license and, on March 23, her dad, who is ordained, married them at their kitchen table in Seattle, surrounded by immediate family. A few close friends joined them by video.

Smiling woman holds man's head while touching her forehead to his. They are casually dressed, seated at their kitchen table.
Elora and Paulo celebrate getting married at their kitchen table. (Photo courtesy of Elora Webb.)

"We shed a lot of tears," Elora said. "I took two days off work to get everything in order and contact everyone. I was also grieving."

It was hard, but she maintained her perspective: "You want to be mad about it, but our family contracted the virus, and every day, more people were dying from it," she said. "The loss of our day wasn't as important to us."

Cancellations and Refunds

At first, they intended to postpone their celebration until later in the year. They contacted their vendors with a request to hold off for a date to be determined. As the months wore on, they realized it wasn't going to happen, and they reached out again to cancel. (Turns out this was a common choice. According to wedding experts at The Knot, half of all couples who got married in 2020 didn't throw a reception.)

With the exception of the toilet rental company, all the vendors gave them a refund. But, because they used a credit card, they were able to do a charge back for the toilet, too.

"If there's one piece of advice I can give, it's that if you can put your deposit on a credit card, do it," Elora said.

Once the restrictions eased a bit, she and Paulo moved to L.A. A family friend, who is a photographer, gifted them a photoshoot in their wedding wear.

Their clothes, the beer and wine were the only items they couldn't return.

"We were still drinking the Coronas at Christmas," Elora said.

Reflecting on how COVID-19 has changed things, Elora doesn't think big weddings are going to be an option anytime soon: "If this experience has taught me anything, it's that you can make something special out of just about anything. Our wedding was a great night. You just have to find the proper balance."

Alex and Maggie Clegg

Location: Tuckahoe, Virginia

Pre-COVID-19 Budget: $100,000

Approximate actual cost: $80,000

When Alex and Maggie got engaged in October 2019, they started planning their wedding right away. They knew they wanted to get married in the fall in Virginia, and they knew it was going to be a big event.

“My wife has a very large family,” Alex said. “Her dad is very social.”

They chose a beautiful location on the James River near Richmond, Va. — perfect to accommodate their 400 invited guests.

When news of COVID-19 started to circulate in the first few months of 2020, Alex and Maggie felt confident that the virus would be long gone, leaving plenty of time for their September wedding. They continued with their plans.

Evolving Situation

By the time they brought on a wedding planner to help them in June, they knew they were going to have to make adjustments. Some venues had closed to large gatherings, and they were well aware of the health guidance about wearing masks and social distancing, but they felt comfortable proceeding with the right precautions.

"We figured if our vendors were still willing, and we stayed within the guidelines, and people were willing to come, we were fine to have the wedding," Alex said.

Groom in dark suit and bride in wedding gown stand smiling in garden
Alex and Maggie had a smaller wedding than they planned, with extra measures to protect their guests. (Photo by Michael and Carina Photography.)

They reached out to their guests and let them know the wedding was still on, but if anyone didn't feel comfortable coming, the couple would understand.

"I think the pandemic has taught people to respect other people's boundaries more than ever before," Alex said.

Of the 400 invited guests, about 150 attended. Alex recalled that somewhere between 12 and 24 people cancelled specifically because of COVID. His grandparents were among the special guests who stayed away but wanted to participate, so Alex and Maggie included them via livestream. 

The lower headcount significantly reduced food costs, which was the main reason the Clegg's wedding came in about $20,000 under budget. That's not surprising. According to The Knot, guest count is one of the main drivers of average wedding costs.

COVID-19 Safety Measures

Alex and Maggie checked local guidelines frequently and, if necessary, they were prepared to change to a "shift" system, inviting smaller groups of guests to arrive and depart throughout the day. But Virginia's rules allowed gatherings large enough for all their guests to attend together.

The Cleggs worked with their vendors to take precautions. They put extra space between tables, provided masks for everyone and placed hand sanitizer stations throughout the venue.

They instituted a color-coded wristband system. Green bands meant people were comfortable being close, yellow bands meant give the person some space, and red bands meant the person was most comfortable with lots of space, no physical interaction. A few people wore red bands. The remaining guests were split between yellow and green.

Before entering the wedding, everyone was required to have their temperature checked with no-touch, infrared thermometers.

Caterers also changed how they served food to reduce interactions with food and utensils. Appetizers were served in individual boats rather than having people grab from trays, and food was served by staff at the buffet instead of guests serving themselves.

Budgeting, Planning and Communication

As a client advisor for a capital management firm, budgets and finance are second nature to Alex. He said that with any big expense, it's important to do your homework so you understand the costs, and plan to pay for more than you think you might need to. But even he was surprised by some of the details, and how much they add up — things like music during the ceremony, not just the reception, and special lighting.

He estimated COVID safety measures, including the masks, sanitizer, wristbands and infrared thermometers, added about $1,000 to the total wedding costs. It was understood from the beginning that family would pick up the tab for just about everything, which Alex and Maggie are deeply grateful for.

Thanks to good planning, preparation and communication, the Cleggs had a wonderful day, and everything went smoothly.

When asked what advice he would give others planning a wedding during COVID-19, Alex said: "It's important to understand and think about what you're asking people to do. Make sure everyone feels comfortable, and don't be offended if they don't come."