The couple had planned to marry aboard the J train, sailing across New York’s Williamsburg Bridge and its dazzling panoramic views of the East River. Last week, as the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread and cities across the United States were edged with growing panic, their wedding planner Jenny McFarlane realized it wasn’t happening.
“They were coming in from Canada,” McFarlane explains. She’s the founder of Eloping is Fun, a service that plans elopements for couples, usually from abroad. People love to elope in New York, she says: “It’s on the easier side to do it here, and of course it’s iconic and beautiful.” With her husband Matt, they’ve planned weddings in all of New York’s most scenic—and often very public—places: Grand Central, the New York Public Library’s Schwarzman Building, Central Park.
At the best of times, those places can be crowded and perhaps not matchlessly clean, but the subway in the time of a pandemic is uniquely fraught. The Canadian couple, McFarlane says, had planned a “fun, performance art, guerilla-style party on the subway” for their wedding. “We got confetti and decorations,” and even had a tongue-in-cheek speech built into the ceremony about how “we’re not spreading viruses, we’re spreading love,” as she puts it. But McFarlane realized, she says, “The subway is just not a place to be. Right now is not the time.”
She’s grappling with how quickly things changed: “I had some clients reach out a week or two ago, and I said, ‘New York is fine, it’s just a little quiet.’ I was doing my best to be calm and reassuring. But I’m realizing people are definitely going to have to reschedule.” Several Irish couples who were set to marry next week were the hardest hit, she said, since the Trump administration extended its European travel ban to include the United Kingdom and Ireland.
“I feel so bad for my couples from Europe who emailed me last night,” she said. ”Especially when you’re so close to it, you’re getting married next fucking week.”
McFarlane’s clients aren’t alone: Weddings large and small across the United States are being cancelled or postponed indefinitely, a situation that the Associated Press points out is throwing the wedding industry into a state of edgy uncertainty, with planners, venues, and bridal shops all scrambling to figure out what to do in a situation unlike any in recent memory.
For couples who’d planned to marry soon, having to determine whether they’ll cancel or postpone their wedding means they’ve been faced with a series of difficult decisions over the last couple weeks: Some are agonizing about whether they can afford to lose some of the money they put into their big day, whether they’ll be reimbursed by any of their vendors, and whether they can even find another date to marry in the next two years, given that wedding venues are often booked at least that far in advance. As of Saturday, the CDC was recommending that engaged couples cancel their weddings entirely.
Even before that, several engaged couples told VICE that they were uncomfortable forcing friends and family members to travel at a time when the CDC is warning that even domestic travel is no longer risk-free.
“It does feel a little bit selfish,” Marie Lestina told VICE. She and her fiancée Rachel Friedman had planned to marry at a winery in Virginia in early April, not far from Alexandria, where they live. “It’s tone-deaf, right? To have a wedding in the middle of a pandemic.” Besides that, she added, “About 70 percent of our guests are flying in from out of town.”
Lestina and Friedman had planned to have about 165 guests at their wedding, including Lestina’s mother and nine other family members who’d planned to come from Taiwan. The day after Trump announced the European travel restrictions, Lestina said, over a dozen guests dropped out, including all of her family in Taiwan, where the disease is relatively contained. “For some reason that announcement instilled a sense in them that shit must be getting real.”
For a few days, Lestina and Friedman were still on the fence about whether to cancel their wedding entirely. It had taken so much time and careful planning, Lestina explained: “We’ve been engaged for over a year and a half and looking forward to this day. Two or three days ago we didn’t think anything of it. But now it’s starting to hit that we may not be able to have this grand wedding we’ve planned for so long.”
They were both feeling a sense of loss, she said: “Something you’re so dedicated to is being taken away from you. That’s at the forefront of how we’re feeling right now. It’s not really the money, it’s all the time and energy and hype and excitement leading up to this day.”
But two days after we first spoke, Lestina told VICE they’d decided to postpone, after 14 more couples said they’d be unable to attend. Besides that, she added, “Today there is a ban on all events with more than 100 people in Virginia—so we would’ve had to postpone regardless.”
It’s worked out relatively well, she said: “Vendors for the most part have been super accommodating and willing to work our new date at no additional cost.” The biggest hurdle, she said, was finding a new date that worked for the venue, both bridal parties, and the couple, balanced against the uncertainty of how long the pandemic will last. “We didn’t want to have it in the early summer in the event that things don’t calm down by then.” In the end, they picked a date in September, but still plan to be married by a justice of the peace next week in a small private ceremony.
Even couples who’d planned low-key weddings are feeling the effects, if those plans involved travel. Sam Blakley and his fiancée Stacey both live in the southeast of England, in the town of Chichester. They’d planned to come to Las Vegas to get married in early April, on the four-year anniversary of their first date. The travel ban and the outbreak have made that impossible, he told VICE: “We had 24 other friends and family due to come with us and of course after the news yesterday that will all have to be postponed.”
That meant 18 months of planning down the drain, including flights, hotels, the dress, the ceremony, the wedding breakfast and all the activities they’d planned for their guests. Adding to the frustration and absurdity of the situation, Blakley said, they’d originally booked their travels with Thomas Cook, the travel company which collapsed in September 2019. “Of course we got our money back from that, but again had to rebook everything.”
And for couples dealing with immigration issues on top of foiled wedding plans, things are even more complicated. Pattie Flint planned to marry her fiancé Tom on May 28; she lives in the Bay Area and for now, he’s in England, where he’s from. The couple had hoped to marry and start the process of getting his visa. They’d started planning in November, hoping for a small wedding with about 20 people. “Right after Trump announced the [European] travel ban, I called him straight away,” Flint says, reaching him at 2 a.m. in England. “I said, it’s over. There’s no coming back. The administration clarified it doesn’t apply to the U.K. but we were like at any moment it could apply to the UK and do we really want to wait around until that?” (Flint was correct, and the administration applied the ban to the U.K. days later.)
Their concerns were more about their guests than themselves, Flint said. “We have someone coming from England who’s going to be pregnant at the time so we were really worried about her getting stuck here.” Her travel insurance company was denying her insurance, Flint said. Other guests had health issues that would make travel a risk under ordinary circumstances.
“It’s a medical mess,” Flint said. “Everyone is coming in with all of these conditions. At the best of times it would’ve been like, some worry but we’ve got everything under control but at this point, it was untenable and irresponsible.” The couple decided they had no choice but to postpone the wedding.
To her surprise, Flint said that after her disappointment passed, she felt a “huge sense of relief. We weren’t having to watch the news and bet against the future.” And she felt the couple’s guests were relieved too: “I just felt like everyone didn’t want to tell you we should cancel, but as soon as we emailed everyone saying we weren’t going to do this, they were like, ‘Thank god.’”
But the postponed wedding is only part of their current stress, Flint said: “We don’t live together. You know in Titanic when that old couple are drowning in bed together? I keep picturing that. I wish he was here so we can survive corona together.”
Throughout it all, people who make their living in the wedding industry are balancing empathy for their disappointed couples with concern over their livelihoods. “I’m severely impacted by this as a business owner,” McFarlane says, the owner of Eloping is Fun. ““You’re going to lose money and time. That’s a given now. That’s not negotiable anymore.”
McFarlane also photographs regular, large weddings throughout New York through her other company, Stylish Hip Weddings. She says that business will likely be impacted too, though she trusts in the resilience of the city: “Speaking as a New Yorker, we’ve all been through so much. But I can’t speak to other places in the country.”
As she tries to help the couples who’d planned to marry with her help process the fact that those weddings aren’t happening any time soon, she’s also dealing with her own intense emotions. “In all my life I’ve never had such a deep feeling of uncertainty.” Trying to square that with the usual emotions behind a wedding—love, excitement, anticipation—“It’s this weird headspace,” she said. “You’re thinking about this monumental day in your life, with this thing happening and this feeling and these thoughts and these anxieties. They don’t jibe together.”
Perhaps no one is facing a bigger adjustment to their wedding plans than Kendall Brown, a freelance writer and digital strategist and her fiancé who's in the Air Force. Brown asked that VICE withhold his name to protect his privacy, as well as some other personal details about the couple.
In February, Brown told VICE, her partner found out that he would be deploying this summer, a year sooner than the military had originally planned. They decided they'd marry this spring while he had a few days of leave, in a simple ceremony with just an officiant. They reasoned they could celebrate with their friends and family after his deployment ended.
"I'm Quaker, and traditionally Quaker weddings are self-uniting and relatively simple, so we figured this would be in the same spirit," Brown told VICE.
But on Saturday, the military announced it will ban domestic travel for service members, a ban which is expected to last until at least May 11. The ban's impact Brown said, "is so big that I don't think we've even realized the full extent yet." If her partner is unable to come back to their home state until mid-May, "chances are we'll have to scrap every aspect of our already super simple pre-deployment wedding. I'll have to travel to him rather than him coming home," meaning they can't be married at the place they'd wanted, with the officiant Brown chose, "and likely none of our intended witnesses or family members present," she said.
"It's overwhelming to think about having to change everything about our plans," she added, "especially when the deployment meant that even our original plan was already bare bones and nothing like I had pictured our wedding would be like. I'm having to do research this week to find out even basic stuff, like what is legally required to get married in a different state."
The couple barely have had time to discuss new potential wedding plans; Brown has a chronic illness and is immunocompromised. She has to strictly isolate herself right now, so when her fiancé visited this week, they focused instead on getting her prepared for what might be a long stretch alone.
Brown said she's spent this week oscillating between disappointment and anger, frustrated, she said, "that elected officials in charge of the coronavirus response didn't take this seriously for so long and spent valuable time running PR interference for Donald Trump instead of doing anything to mitigate the impact this is having on every American's life."
In the end, she's doing her best to focus on the positive: ultimately, someday, being married to—and in the same state as—the person she loves, while at the same time fearing for what might be.
"I'm most afraid of losing someone I love because our healthcare system wasn't adequately prepared to handle a pandemic like COVID-19," she told VICE. "Ultimately, even if we have to wait until next year when my partner is home from deployment to celebrate our marriage with our friends and family—and even if the wedding looks nothing like I had planned or wanted—as long as everyone we love is safe and still here to celebrate it with us, I'll be happy."