Planning for COVID in 2021
Updated: a day ago
This past year has been a doozy, but we're not out of it quite yet.
I wish this could be all warm and fuzzy. I wish I could say "Yay 2021!" and act like COVID is just going to disappear.
As much as I wish it would, we've still got an uncertain road ahead. But, we still can approach this year with cautious optimism, proactivity and with the right information at our disposal.
I'm writing this blog as we head into the New Year to remind us of what we know, help you plan for the unknowns ahead of us, and encourage you to make decisions that feel right for you.
As a disclaimer: a lot of this info. will pertain to celebrating in Massachusetts, where I'm based. A lot of the principles can be applied to celebrations in other states, but I'd encourage you to look up information that's specific to your state and work with your venue + vendors. I am also no COVID expert and have all the same information in front of me as many of you do. These are simply my thoughts and feelings around how to move forward in wedding planning during a time of uncertainty.
Oh, and this is all of us right now, because we need a good laugh:
Before we get into the nitty gritty, I want to encourage you to keep these things at the forefront of your mind (do not skip this part!):
Take it one day at a time. Don't jump to any premature or emotion-driven decisions. If you are feeling lost and confused, PLEASE consult with your wedding vendors first. You cannot do this without them, and they're here for you. If you do not have a planner/coordinator, consider hiring one. If that's not within budget, consider a virtual consultation with a planner to help you stay grounded. Many planners are offering complimentary consultations to discuss COVID, or hourly consultations to get more in depth. Check out our consultation services here.
Do not let the anxiety and emotions of others rattle you. There will be a lot of talk and misinformation floating around this year. You have to make a commitment to yourself to seek out reliable sources and factual information in order to make decisions that feels right for you. Not the gossip of others.
Again, I implore you to stick to the facts and gather all the necessary information before moving forward with any decisions. It's so important to understand what your state, your venue, and your vendors are implementing for COVID safety measures and protocols.
Be patient. We are not going to have all the answers we're seeking right now. Start to plan your Plans B and C, but try and be patient as we see how we emerge from this second wave in winter and head into spring time.
Lastly and most importantly, try your best to stay open-minded and flexible. 2020 and 2021 will be hard years for both engaged couples and businesses. No one is having an easy time here. We want to continue to stay in business to serve you, and in order to do that, we've all had to adapt and will need to continue to adapt. SO many wedding pros are willing to meet you halfway and show empathy and flexibility, but it has to go both ways.
Let's talk about what we know. Here is some of the information that's been made available to us (as of January 1, specific to Massachusetts):
In Massachusetts, there are plans to have the vaccine available to the general public between April and June. This is great news! But, we already know that there's been a lag and we are not currently on course for a speedy distribution.
So, let's be a bit less optimistic at this moment and say that the vaccine is available to the general public by the summer, June/July. Once the vaccine is made available to the general public, it will take some time to fully distribute to the majority of the population. And even then, there's still a question of how many people will take it and the effect on COVID transmission throughout the state and country.
After the vaccine rolls out to the general public here in MA, we should not expect to snap back to the way things were pre-COVID. Mask wearing and social distancing will very likely still be in play for a good part of 2021, with the vaccine as an additional method of slowing the spread. According to Dr. Fauci, we're seeking at least 70% vaccination in the US before seeing rollbacks in public healthy safety precautions.
We have also seen that New England states having been making decisions for reopening based on health data. Once the vaccine rolls out to the public, states are not likely to loosen up restrictions on social gathering in large groups until we have an understanding of how much of the population has been vaccinated, AND it's effect on the transmission of COVID. It's going to take time to see the effects of the vaccine distribution and to gather the data that's needed to reopen safely.
It's critical to remember: a enormous part of these health and safety protocols is not just concern for your health, it's an effort to not push our health care systems to the brink. It's not only about the risk of death and serious illness, it's about the number of people that require medical attention and our health care providers ability to keep up.
There is also new buzz about a new mutation of COVID-19 that's breaking out in the UK and elsewhere. I see a lot of couples panicking on Facebook and spreading misinformation. Before you do, it is SO important to do your own research and not just react to what a stranger on social media is saying (without sources). Here is a great article from NPR that explains virus mutations and why the vaccine is likely still effective.
Now, what does this mean for your 2021 wedding? Here is my opinion:
While I do not know any of this for sure, this is my forecast based on the information we have available to us right now.
I personally do not see the following things happening before third quarter (July - September), in Massachusetts:
Large indoor gatherings (more than 50)
Letting up on social distancing measures and mask wearing
Changes to food service regulations (bar service, plated food service, etc.)
I think that the following things will likely last throughout all (or most) of 2021:
Some degree of reduced capacity
Social distancing measures + mask wearing
Changes to food service
I really hope I am wrong, but I think it's best to think ahead to this kind of reality.
Conservatively, I would say that we should prepare for a spring and early summer that is similar to summer/early fall of 2020, with the hope of even more progress in late summer/early fall once the state has been able to gather enough data about COVID transmission and vaccine rollout.
The reason why I say conservatively is because it is better to be proactive than reactive. We prepare for the worst case scenario and hope for the best case. I do not want you to cross your fingers, wait until you're 2 months out from your wedding date, and then start talking about how to adjust and what to do.
For those who are celebrating in the spring and early summer, I'm recommending that you mentally and logistically prepare for occupancy limits like we saw in summer/fall of 2020 (outlined below). This was when COVID numbers were lowest and restrictions eased up. I am not saying this is what you will end up having to implement, but it would be wise to take this time in the winter to revisit your guest list and talk to your vendors about how to put plans in place in the event that you have to switch things up.
As a refresher, here were the gathering limits we saw in MA for most of 2020:
Indoor gatherings: 8 people per 1,000 sq. ft., not to exceed 25 people in a single enclosed space.
25% of permitted occupancy, or if none, 8 people per 1,000 sq. feet, not to exceed:
7/2 - 8/6 - 100
8/7 - 9/28 - 50
9/29 - 11/1 - 50 for private residences, 100 for event venues
If your wedding is taking place in another state, it's a good idea to look back on the state's website and review what gathering limits looked like in 2020 and keep tabs on the everchanging updates as we progress through this year. Every state is different, and for the purposes of this blog, I am only focusing on MA.
Overall: It seems that third quarter (July - September) will be a time of transition, with loosening of restrictions toward the end of the quarter - August and September. Fourth quarter (October - December) we'll likely see a new phase of restrictions being lifted and a "new normal" (yuck, buzz words).
With this in mind, it seems promising that we can expect to be able to celebrate outdoors this summer with a minimum of 100, with hopes for loosening up the indoor gathering limit of 25 if all goes according to plan with vaccine distribution.
Perhaps the biggest point of anxiety and stress is the banning of dance floors in Massachusetts. This has been a huge deal breaker for a lot of couples, and I get it.
First, I want to say that just because dance floors are not allowed, does not mean that social distanced dancing and entertainment cannot take place. I always recommend having professional entertainment and emcee for your wedding, no matter the guest count. If you've already contracted with a band, they can still perform as long as they're following social distancing measures between one another and guests. So, don't run to cancel your entertainment just because you can't have your full guest list.
While formal dance floor space is not permitted, couples have still been able to have their first dance, parent, dances, and social distanced dancing within the space. The whole purpose of banning the dance floor is that it's a clearly defined space that invites guests to gather and dance close together. Right? So, if there's ample space at your venue, there shouldn't be an issue with dancing at your table and with members of your household. If you hire a professional band or DJ, they'll work with you to make sure the playlist fits the crowd.
Now, let's talk about postponement:
If you're reading all this and feeling less than excited, you may be questioning whether postponing to fall or winter 2021 or into 2022 is a possibility for you.
I'll first say that venue and vendor availability within 2021 is growing more and more sparse by the day. If you are thinking about postponing within 2021 (for example, April to November) - look into it now. 2021 and 2022 have become saturated by the many weddings that did not take place in 2020, plus new engagements since COVID. There's a better chance that if they have the availability, venues and vendors will be more lenient to allow you to move within the 2021 season without financial impact to you, rather than moving to 2022.
What about contracts and postponement terms? When COVID first hit, many businesses took a more lenient stance of allowing their clients to move to later in 2020 or even into 2021 without financial repercussions for the client. Businesses will be taking a massive financial hit in 2021 because of that, on top of lost income in 2020.
It's important to remember as a consumer in the wedding industry: no small business is turning a big profit right now. We are all hurting.
Now that we've been living in COVID for about 10 months, vendors and venues have had time to revamp their terms for postponement. For postponements that take place from here on out, clients should expect additional costs, anywhere from 10-20% of their total contracted services. Without implementing postponement terms like this, these spaces and businesses will *literally* not survive a second year of this. We are not charging this fee to be greedy, we are doing it to simply survive.
It's important to remember that every vendor and venue will have different terms for postponement. Not every vendor will choose to implement a postponement fee. We all have different business models, and it's not fair to assume that all of our business practices will and should match up. The idea of "Well, my photographer is allowing us to postpone without fees, so you should, too", does not apply here. Be prepared for vendors sticking to their specific contracts and policies for cancellation and postponement, across the board.
If you are considering postponing to 2022, it's OK to start that conversation, and it needs to begin with your venue. Know that every venue is going to differ. Some venues may not allow postponement until you're within a certain window from your event date, say 3-4 months. Some are handling postponements in chronological order, looking at the spring weddings before addressing summer. Some on a case-by-case basis. Some vendors are following suit in this.
It's OK to ask questions and see what moving your date looks like with your venue and vendor team, but please understand that there very likely will be some costs associated with this move and new terms put into place.
The reason for this is that dates are our inventory. When you take a date off the shelf and book it, we lose out on the opportunity to book anything else for that date. When you return the date to us, there's no promise that we will re-book it, and you are also taking future inventory off the shelf for 2022, all while expecting 2020 or 2021 prices. It just doesn't work like that.
Let me be clear: I am not recommending that you rush to look into postponement plans. But depending on your date, location, and financial situation, it may be a viable option for you. Ultimately, the decision to postpone or stick with your date is going to be a very personal one, and I'll outline some questions for you to ask yourself down below.
Now, let's talk about adjusting plans and the potential for downsizing in 2021:
I'm not here to convince you to do something that doesn't feel right for you. But with new postponement policies in place for most wedding service providers, it may be in your best financial (and perhaps personal) interest to hold firm on your date.
The good news is, wedding vendors already helped LOTS of couples do this successfully and safely in 2020. And that was year 1 of the pandemic. We know a lot more now than we did then.
I was a part of some absolutely incredible intimate celebrations in 2020, all without regrets from my clients. In fact, couples said that they were able to be more present with their spouse and guests and were able to do more with their budget. Think: upgrading food and beverage, enhancing floral designs, upgrading rentals, fun transportation (trolleys!), and more.
Guest count is the #1 driver of costs for your wedding day, so imagine all the things you can do when you celebrate more intimately.
I'm here to tell you: you do not need a 100+ person guest list to have an incredible wedding. It may not be what you originally imagined, but it will be incredible. In fact, I think 2020 couples would argue that their weddings were more enjoyable with less of the worry of having to please hundreds of their "nearest and dearest".
All I'm saying is, consider a more intimate and COVID-safe wedding in 2021. It could turn out to be everything you wanted and more. And there are so many amazing examples of that in 2020 that you can look to for inspiration and support.
Here are some benefits to getting married in 2021:
YOU GET MARRIED (after all, isn't that the most important part?)
You get to save money on per person costs and option to upgrade the details that will enhance your wedding day experience.
You avoid having to put off the wedding for another year and embrace life as it is now. No pre-wedding stress hanging over your head for another year.
Things you can do with a smaller guest count:
Hire a planner/coordinator
Ramp up your bar and menu offerings
Enhance your décor with upgraded linens, chairs, lighting, florals
Spend more quality time with each guest rather than table hopping all night
2021 weddings will still have to be celebrated COVID-safe. This may mean the following:
Supplying masks and hand sanitizer for your guests
Spacing tables 6' apart and assigning seating by household
Adjusting catering service with table-side drink service and individually plated foods
Looking for opportunities for al fresco gathering to minimize time spent indoors
For guests who have not received the vaccine, ask them to test negative and quarantine as much as possible before your wedding date
Nobody wants their wedding to end up like the Maine super-spreader wedding. Your one wedding day is NOT more important than the health and safety of hundreds of people.
How to come up with the right plan for you:
Navigating 2021 as a bride/groom is not going to have any "one size fits all" approach.
I beg you, please take the advice coming from other couples with a grain of salt. Everyone is making decisions based on their unique date, location, guest count, guest profile, venue, vendors, budget, comfort level, and many, many other factors.
Now is the time to collect all the info. you can about your state's Coronavirus response, your venue/vendors contracts and policies, and you and your families' personal thoughts and feelings around adapting to restrictions that we will likely see through most (if not all) of the next calendar year.
Here are the questions you should be asking:
Given your state's current guidelines and what we saw last year, what is realistic to expect as you look ahead to your date?
How many guests are traveling from out of state? How many need to get on a plane?
Some guests may opt out of attending due to COVID. Will you be OK with them participating virtually?
Do you have at-risk and immune compromised VIP guests? Will they have the opportunity to get vaccinated before your wedding date
Would you consider cutting your guest list and hosting a smaller scale event?
What are the financial implications for postponing your wedding to a new date?
Are there outdoor options at your venue? If no, will you be OK with reducing your guest list to stay indoors? Can you forego your initial deposit and book an outdoor space or celebrate at a private home?
Here are some key dates that drive decision making:
Invitation mailing: this looming deadline causes anxiety for many couples. When to mail invitations and who to mail to? Invitations are typically mailed 8 - 12 weeks prior to your wedding date. While not recommended, if COVID restrictions are in flux, you could hold of on mailing until 6-8 weeks to buy a little bit of time. You could also mail to a core group at the 12 week mark, and selectively continue to mail out to additional guests as you near that 6-8 week mark, pending RSVP turnout and whether restrictions are lifting. Be sure to keep an eye on your hotel room block cutoff date so that you're not running up against that deadline as well.
I know that a lot of couples fear sending out invitations and then having to rescind them. If that does happen due circumstances that are completely out of your control, it's OK. Remind yourself that we are still in a global pandemic and cut yourself some slack.
No one wants to rescind an invitation, but if it does happen, and your guests will understand. If this ends up transpiring, reach out to those guests personally. Give them a call. They may be disappointed, but they will understand. Follow up with a hand written note or small gift to show them how much you care and wish that they could be with you in-person. Live stream your wedding ceremony to allow them to be with you from a distance.
I think it's wise to continue to update and direct your guests to your wedding website and collect e-mail addresses for guests that received a save the date. You may want to notify them by email before that invitation mailing period to let them know what's going on and to encourage them to keep checking your wedding website for updates.
Final payments: keep an eye on when final payments are due and what contract terms look like for all of your providers. Some vendors collect final payments months in advance, weeks, or days in advance. Understand when those payments are due and what the contract terms are for adjusting orders and scope of services, postponement, or cancellation.
The good news: there are changes and positive things ahead. It's going to get better.
The not so good news: it's not going to be an immediate or a quick fix.
You guys, we're all so tired. We're disappointed. We're grieving so many things. In addition to putting wedding planning on hold, the virus has also robbed us in many other ways, both personally and professionally.
You likely have heard this many times, but I don't think one can hear it enough:
Now more than ever is a time to settle into deep gratitude and thanks for all of the things we have as we head into 2021. Focus and hold onto the things that you do have control over.
Let 2020 be an example: the couples who chose to move forward with their marriages and weddings are SO happy. They got dressed up, they gathered more intimately, they ate and drank and even danced. And they got married to the one person that means most to them in this world. Especially in a year that has brought death and loss for so many: they chose to celebrate and embrace life in the now.
I really, really don't want us to lose sight of that feeling of appreciation. If you still have your loved ones here with you, a roof over your head and food on the table, there is so much to be grateful for. A wedding (no matter the cost) is a luxury.
At the end of the day, you have to do what feels right for you. In order to do this, I'll leave you with some final tips:
Seek out all of the information that's available to you: from your state, city, town, venue, and vendor team. Please do not rely on the news and Facebook.
Lean on your vendors and allow them to help you. Do not try and make these decisions alone.
Seek out the guidance of a wedding planner, if you can. I am not just saying that because I am one, I am saying it because it's truly an invaluable, knowledgeable, unbiased voice.
Remind yourself of what's most important to you. Is it really the big party and the material things? Is it having your family and closest friends with you? Is it finally being able to marry your soulmate? What is truly most important about this entire experience?
Finally, I'd love to help you if you're struggling. I'm always available for a complimentary 20 minute call, and offer 1:1 hourly coaching sessions.
If you're planning your wedding and feeling less than confident while on a budget, I want to invite you to join me for The Wedding Planning Intensive on January 12 and 19.
I'm offering wedding planning guidance in a group setting with other local New England couples. We cover all facets of wedding planning, including COVID, and you have access to your own Google Drive folder of documents and access to our private Facebook group for continued conversation. I would love to see you there!