PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Pandemic Parties, a phrase most of us probably never expected to embrace but embrace we have.
With U.S. COVID-19 infections nearing 15 million, it’s no surprise the wedding industry, a multi-billion-dollar industry, has taken a hit.
According to the CDC, a wedding reception that took place in rural Maine, caused a COVID-19 outbreak that led to 177 cases, 7 hospitalizations, and 7 deaths.
One question remains, is it worth the risk, and are people still throwing parties and traditional weddings?
According to weddingwire.com, December is the most popular month of the year to get engaged. If this is true, there should be a lot of eager brides looking to book weddings in 2021 and beyond.
Devin Destival, event coordinator for Runaway Island (a restaurant and venue space) said most weddings are booked well in advance.
“Some brides are last minute, I get three weeks sometimes to set something up,” said Destival. “But most of the time, most people are looking about a year out, right.”
Kelsey Barr, a September bride, booked her wedding six months ahead of time. She said it was all paid for: the flowers, the DJ, the reception, and the photographer.
“Everything was ready to rock-n-roll and then….about a month before that we just looked at each other and said, this just isn’t going to happen,” Barr said. “And then when the reception area shut down that was kind of our….we gotta do something else.”
When COVID-19 began to spread, many didn’t know what to expect and the hope was it would be over in a few short months. But even 11 months later, it’s still killing Americans every day.
Instead of shutting down completely, some in the event industry have been able to continue working but others have not.
Panama City musician, Jeff Peacock has been playing at corporate events and weddings for over 20 years. Performing is his only source of income and he said in December alone, he’s normally booked solid.
“Usually you get annual Christmas parties where they give away end of the year awards, that kind of thing and the banquets,” Peacock said. “And I don’t have any on the books yet, there may be some that come up but that’s one of those things where they are probably going to do that remotely this year.”
As for weddings, Peacock said he’s done over 200 since starting his career. But this year, he hasn’t played a single one.
Destival said weddings are the biggest draw for their venue, but they also rely on corporate events.
“We still do tons of company events, locally we have some that we’ve booked every single year,” Destival said. “We have a really large event that books every year that books the entire venue and this year they decided to not book because of COVID.”
Susan Velazquez, owner of Magnolia’s Flowers said there’s an uncertainty in the air that’s created stress, especially in the floral department.
“We will rebook and reschedule and do everything we can, as long as the flowers have not hit my door,” Valazquez said. “Majority of the flowers all come from overseas.”
Recently, Valazquez encountered a no-show, something she doesn’t see that often with weddings.
“Probably a month ago, we had a bride come in for a small ceremony, and that day they didn’t come and pick up their flowers,” Valazquez said. “So I called and I called, and the groom was in the ICU with COVID.”
Destival said, when the shutdown occurred, she did everything she could to accommodate everyone’s needs.
“I was really careful to try my hardest to say look you’ve already put this deposit, let’s just try to push it and change the day,” Destival said. “Because of course, I don’t want to lose anyone……we did have some we had to cancel and yes we did full refunds.”
For another Panama City Bride, her story was a little different from Barr’s. Ellie Thompson, October bride said she got lucky. Her husband had a strange hunch about her first wedding date choice of May so they chose October instead.
“But thank God it was not in May because we would have been like, in quarantine or something,” Thompson said.
Thompson was able to keep her original wedding date and her dream of having a big celebration.
“We had 26 people in our bridal party. I had 12 bridesmaids, 12 groomsmen, we had everyone’s family, we had my family,” Thompson said. “So it ended up being like 200 and something.”
Thompson said for weeks after the wedding, they braced themselves, worried about people getting sick.
“No one got COVID,” Thompson said. “I mean there wasn’t like one person who even got the sniffles.”
As for Barr, she was finally able to get her perfect wedding by changing her April date to September.
“We were able to call and get ahold of every single person that was apart of our….chair rental, flower company, reception, DJ, wedding coordinator, photographers, and they were all able to agree on one date,” Barr said. “And we immediately resigned contracts.”
The only thing they weren’t able to rebook was the original ceremony location, which also caused an issue when resending invitations. Barr said they just went with it and played into the COVID theme.
“We took the original invitation, which was a drawing that my father had made for us which had our original location, the original wedding date and we just photoshopped it and put quarantined on top of it,” Barr said. “It said Jeff and Kelsey take two and wrote the new wedding location.”
Unlike Thompson, Barr’s wedding ended up being on the smaller side with 80 people in all. Her ceremony took place outdoors, and her reception was at Runaway Island in the upstairs open-air atmosphere. She did a lot to ensure everyone’s safety.
“We had a COVID safety station set up,” Barr said. “We had hand sanitizer, we had masks, we had a temperature check, just to make our guests feel as safe as possible.”
Destival said before COVID, the typical Runaway Island wedding reception was larger, but the pandemic scaled things back.
“Before it used to be close to 100,” Destival said. “Now the average is seeming to be more like 50 to 60.”
Thompson said she was surprised at how many people showed up to her wedding. She suspects it was because they were looking forward to being social.
“You know you can’t go to the movie theatre, you can’t do this, so people are like looking forward to getting out and that’s what we saw,” Thompson said. “But mostly with the younger people, not the older folks.”
People want to attend their loved one’s special day, but Destival said they are nervous, especially the older demographic. This has inspired Runaway to come up with unique ways to go that extra mile to ensure safety.
“No one will even come into your space or be around you, without a mask on or gloves if that’s what you request,” Destival said. “We also have the option, this is kind of a new and exciting thing, with armbands where you can kind of let it be known how you feel about COVID without having to ask somebody.”
Their system is simple: If it’s red, it means you don’t want anyone near you; if it’s yellow, fist bumps and talking within six feet are okay; and green means anything goes.
“And then everyone knows where you stand,” Destival said. “That’s been something a lot of brides and grooms have chose, and even company events to is really big on those ones coming up for Christmas time.”
Thompson said as the bride she never intended on wearing a mask but fully expected guests to show up with them on.
“I was expecting like half and half maybe, but no, I didn’t see one person with a mask,” Thompson said.
Like Barr, her wedding took place outdoors. Thompson suspects it was the reason so many people showed up and also the reason nobody got sick.
As far as food is concerned, Destival said Runaway Island has definitely made some adjustments.
“Buffett is obviously gonna be the more budget-conscious choice, but with COVID that’s changed in the fact that not everyone touching the same spoon,” Destival said. “The staff members, who are gloved and masked up, they can plate it for you.”
Valazquez said, even though it’s been a bit of a hurdle to operate her flower business during unpredictable times, it’s also been a learning experience.
“We were still doing quite a few walk-in brides. “People would call the day before or that day, or a week in advance,” Valazquez said. “Bridal bouquets, boutonnieres, corsages, things of that nature, small centerpieces because people’s events were much smaller.”
But what does the future look like? Vaccines are getting close to distribution, and a new president will soon take office. Is another shut-down on the horizon and if so, what would that mean for the industry.
Peacock said he has high hopes for 2021.
“Another shut down would be hard for everyone. I don’t think anyone would want that,” Peacock said. “I think people are kind of itching to get back out.”
Valazquez said she thinks the pandemic has made people appreciate things more.
“They’ve already gone through the trials and tribulations of trying to have a COVID wedding so they are grateful for anything beautiful,” Velazquez said.
“We really want to keep going, right,” Destival said. “I really love this job so I wanna do it. I love booking people.”