A Very Unwelcome Wedding Guest

Wedding planning is now even more stressful thanks to the coronavirus.

DigitalVision / Getty / MBLifestyle / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Steven Zarnfaller’s elderly cousin couldn’t risk attending his wedding. Last week, Zarnfaller got a call from the 78-year-old, who has been like a mother to him. Given the news about the coronavirus, she told him, it was too dangerous for her to fly from New York to Oakland, California, for his April 5 ceremony. Since COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, appears to be especially deadly for the elderly, she had to avoid contracting the illness at the airport or on a plane.

Zarnfaller decided that if someone that important to him couldn’t be there, the celebration wasn’t worth having. A few hours later, he and his fiancé canceled their 50-person wedding, sending out texts and emails to all their guests. Luckily, they hadn’t put down any nonrefundable deposits. But they still have to cancel their honeymoon. They had planned on going to Japan and Taiwan, two places that have had their own coronavirus outbreaks. “We had put a lot of work and effort into this amazing vacation,” Zarnfaller told me. “And now we have to basically start from scratch.”

Wedding cancellations are just another way that the coronavirus outbreak is shaping American life. Along with scrapped conferences and quarantined cruises, private gatherings, including weddings, have become a logistical casualty of the disease. Already a time of intense jitters, wedding planning has only become more jittery thanks to a frightening virus that spreads quickly and forces people to stay in their homes.

Weddings are an intensely intimate coronavirus disruption—both emotionally and financially. A canceled conference can have devastating effects on vendors, companies, and workers who rely on the event for income. Canceled weddings shake up families who thought they were planning the most significant day of their lives.

Many of the suggested coronavirus precautions run counter to the very idea of weddings, which involve large groups of people, many of them elderly, convening in tightly enclosed spaces to dance with one another while eating food from shared trays. (Indeed, weddings are one of the types of gatherings currently banned in Italy.) Consider: Large segments of the American population are currently being told to avoid crowds. Older people—like young adults’ parents and relatives—really shouldn’t be flying. And with so many companies limiting nonessential travel, even people who aren’t at risk are wondering whether they should just avoid traveling if they can help it. All of this after several nonrefundable deposits to caterers, venues, and planners have been paid.

Interviews with wedding planners, brides, grooms, and insurance companies suggest that although for the most part the betrothed are not yet panicking, they are preparing. And they’re reading the fine print on their vendor contracts.

Lauren Hagee, a public-affairs specialist in Washington, D.C., realized that the coronavirus might affect her May wedding when the shop where she bought her wedding dress in January warned her that she might not be able to get her dress in time because of “the news.” The coronavirus was then tearing through China, slowing down the factories that make wedding dresses. Hagee’s wedding, for which she’s already deposited about $10,000, is taking place in North Carolina, far from both her and her groom’s families. The couple hasn’t canceled anything yet, but “the real worry is that people are going to be getting very sick, and people are not going to want to travel at all,” she told me.

For some weddings, guest counts are already going down because of worries about travel. And some brides- and grooms-to-be are asking for virtual rather than in-person meetings with their wedding planners. Lori Losee, the owner of a wedding-planning company called Elegant Affairs, in Lakewood, Washington, says she’s only had one client out of 25 raise the coronavirus question so far, and she’s advising clients not to panic—and not to cancel. Instead, she encourages them to consider putting on their wedding websites that if guests are sick, they should not come to the wedding. “Really think about what it means to cancel the wedding,” Losee told me. “You’re not going to get any deposits back from anything, because you’re going to be the one canceling.”

Whether couples can get their money back depends on the vendor, says Rebecca Grant, a wedding planner in Seattle, the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak. Grant will allow couples to transfer their wedding-planning funds to another date, as long as she’s available that day. “We as planners are trying to talk our couples off the ledge,” she told me. After all, it would be painful to call off a wedding months in advance only to find, in a month or two, that everything has returned to normal.

Though this might be the recommendation from people whose livelihoods depend on weddings, public-health officials are not quite so sanguine. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, has warned that “disruption to everyday life might be severe.” Colleges and workplaces are shuttering to prevent the spread of the disease, and coronavirus cases in the U.S. are rising.

Sarah, a bride near Seattle who did not want her last name used for privacy reasons, is following planners’ recommended protocol for her wedding in June. She said she’s prepared to either post a warning on her wedding website telling sick guests not to attend, or to simply retract her invitations and postpone the wedding to a later date, depending on the situation in a few months.

Some couples might consider wedding-cancellation insurance, but finding coverage for coronavirus at this point would be difficult, says Steven Lauro, the vice president of Aon’s WedSafe Program, a wedding insurance provider, which provides wedding insurance. Even if you already have a policy, canceling simply because you fear you or your guests could get the coronavirus would likely not be covered. The fear of something happening, Lauro says, is not quite the same, in insurance terms, as a hurricane or an earthquake actually happening. Only if, say, flights were grounded to your wedding destination, or your venue canceled all events with no refunds, would your insurance kick in.

Certain types of weddings, of course, have more need for a backup plan than others. Katja Schulz and her partner, who live in the U.K., were going to take a wedding cruise in July from Southampton to Norway. Except some countries, including the U.S., have now advised people not to take cruises because of how quickly the virus can spread in close quarters. Passengers aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship waited for days to disembark in Oakland, and they will be screened and potentially quarantined on military bases because of possible coronavirus exposure. Schulz and her fiancé are now debating whether to pay their next deposit for their spot on the cruise. “The question is, do we protect the $2,100 [we could avoid paying], or do we risk it all and hope that by then [the virus is] gone?” she says. Schulz says the cruise company told the couple in an email that it would understand if they want to cancel, though whether they’ll get back the money they’ve already spent is unclear.

Two couples I spoke with are planning to marry this fall in Italy, which has seen more than 450 coronavirus deaths and which is completely on lockdown. Both couples, so far, are taking a wait-and-see approach. Solan Strickling and Adlin Cedeño hope that because so many of their wedding vendors are small, locally owned businesses, they’ll be up for negotiating on cancellation costs, if it comes to that. If the outbreak becomes so severe that the Summer Olympics are canceled, the couple told me they’d consider pulling the plug on their ceremony.

The second couple is watching to see whether the quarantine measures that have spread across Italy last for several more months. “Many of our guests (including us!) already have travel booked, and changing the venue (which would likely also require a date change) would be a logistical nightmare,” Julia Ritz Toffoli told me in an email. “Not to mention the fact that we are very attached to our venue and would hate to have to plan a whole new wedding somewhere else.”

For many, the uncertainty is the hardest part. Do you “continue planning like everything’s normal, and it’s going to be fine in May, which it very well could be?” Lauren Hagee asked. “Or do you start making your backup plan?”

It’s a question that applies to many American families right now: Should they cancel their vacation or take the risk? Attend the event or forgo it? Should they be cautious, even if it’s painful? For those shelling out thousands of dollars for what’s supposed to be the most magical day of their lives, the question is even more pressing.