Pandemic wedding planning: Local couples react to announced gathering restriction changes

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Although Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s announced this week that restrictions on gathering limits will increase on April 1, the change for some couples planning their wedding in the midst of a pandemic is too little, too late.

The updated social gathering restrictions, which apply to weddings, will allow indoor events with up to 50 people, instead of 10, and outdoor events with up to 100 people, instead of 25.

Richmond resident Gracie Gilmore has been engaged for more than a year. Her then-boyfriend popped the question last January, leaving her little time to celebrate with loved ones before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gilmore and her fiancé made the decision to postpone their wedding. (Photo: Sam Stroud Photography)

Gilmore worked as an ICU nurse locally throughout 2020, witnessing firsthand the impacts of COVID-19.

“It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It really put in perspective that safety and the health of others is definitely top priority, and so our wedding can definitely wait until next year.”

Gilmore and her fiancé recently made the decision to postpone their wedding celebration to 2022. But the couple still plans to hold a small ceremony with their parents to make their union official in 2021.

“I was definitely very upset at first, but I try to put everything into perspective,” Gilmore said. “If there was even a chance that somebody would come that wasn’t vaccinated and could potentially be exposed, it’s not worth it. We want our wedding to be full of love and hugging everyone and dancing.”

The couple sent out postponement announcements to guests, and Gilmore is eagerly awaiting the day when she can finally wear her wedding dress.

“It’s at my parents house,” she said. “I look at it every time I go home.”

Gilmore said that she is looking forward to finally being able to wear her wedding dress. (Photo: Annalise Bridal)

Gilmore said that she’s most looking forward to being able to embrace her friends and family when the special celebration does come. Even with the eased restrictions, she said she wouldn’t have been able to invite all her loved ones.

“I’m happy with the decision and I’m thankful that we’ll have another year for people to get vaccinated and more research and everything like that,” Gilmore said. “Hopefully, by next year, we’re more back to normal than we are right now.”

Other brides in Virginia like Marla Schrettner, Whitney Steele and Sabrina Huber are waiting until the last minute to make a decision about what to do, with their respective wedding days approaching rapidly.

Schrettner is set to marry her fiancé Andy Alfred on April 24 after a 15-month engagement. She said the couple went about planning their wedding with a guest list of 80 people, hoping that they would hear positive news from the governor’s office before then that would allow their loved ones to attend.

Schrettner has her dress picked out for the April 24 wedding. (Photo: Marla Schrettner)

“I’ve been in touch with [the venue] through general planning with this kind of optimism that I am glad we had because it worked out for us,” Schrettner said. “The first thing was that I decided, with about 80 guests, we were, instead of cutting, just going to move the entire thing outside.”

Schrettner and Alfred’s ceremony was supposed to be held outside with a reception outside as well. But they gambled on this change, trusting that Governor Northam would announce an amendment to Executive Order 72 by the beginning of April.

“I was actually, genuinely, crying tears because I’m so grateful that, just in time, [our wedding] can look just like I wanted,” Schrettner said, recalling when she heard the governor’s announcement on Tuesday.

But for other couples, the notification that social gathering limits would be expanded didn’t come in time, as many plan their wedding several months in advance.

“The venue actually told me, which, this is very upsetting for me, that everybody through August and May, I think they had already either postponed or just kind of scrapped it completely,” Schrettner said. “It’s really sad because it’s an industry at the end of the day.”

Although Governor Northam’s most recent amendment to Executive Order 72 allows venues to operate at 30% capacity, that does not apply to weddings, which are considered social gatherings. That capacity limit applies to recreational sports, including high school athletics, and entertainment venues, a technicality that has groom-to-be Joey Dunleavey at a loss for understanding.

Dunleavey and Huber are getting married in April. (Photo: Virginia Wedding Photography & Videography)

“The thing that makes this just impossible to deal with is just how arbitrary the deciding factor is,” he said. “Because we know the people that are attending, we’re not allowed to have our event, and so we’re losing tens of thousands of dollars and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Dunleavey and Huber were engaged in March 2020, just two days before the COVID-19 health crisis was declared a nation emergency. Setting their wedding date for the following April, the couple did not anticipate such difficulty in planning their special day.

“Planning any kind of wedding is stressful no matter what,” Dunleavey said. “Along this journey of planning our wedding, it has just been a one-thing-after-another lowering of our expectations.”

Instead of looking forward to their wedding day, Dunleavey said that the couple just wants to get it over with.

“It has just gone right down hill every step of the way,” he said. “[Huber] had this big event in mind, just her fairytale wedding, and she’s just been over and over knocked down.”

Dunleavey said that he and Huber were expecting better news from the governor on Tuesday. Just as outdoor entertainment venue capacities will be increased to a limit of 30% starting April 1, they hoped the same would apply to wedding venues, a cap their current guest list is already well below. However, after hearing that they would be limited to a 50-person guest list for their indoor ceremony and venue, Dunleavey said the couple decided they had to move forward and go through the painful process of telling their loved ones that they could no longer attend the big day.

“We’ve come to accept that we’ll have to wear masks, we’re probably not going to be able to dance, we’ll have to have everyone at their tables and not intermingling,” Dunleavey said. “We’d come to accept all the restrictions on our event, but we did not expect to take one third of the number of people that we had invited.”

Dunleavey said he would even be willing to require proof of a negative COVID-19 test from the wedding guests just to make sure that all their loved ones could celebrate with them.

(Photo: Virginia Wedding Photography & Videography)

Though Dunleavey said the couple could postpone their wedding next month, they don’t know when the restrictions would be lifted enough to allow them to have the wedding they had hoped for.

“We’re going to lose all sorts of money, no matter what,” he said. “We either lose money or we lose experience, which is essentially the same thing. We’re paying the same amount for less experience.”

Dunleavey said that he and his fiancée could move their wedding day and try to get money back from the venue and their vendors. But he knew the importance of those deposits and payments to the small business owners who make up the greater Richmond area’s wedding and events industry.

“These people are doing everything in their power to attempt to make things work out in the worst wedding season in living memory,” Dunleavey said. “They’ve spent the money that we gave them when this first started a long time ago on making ends meet, paying rent. They’re dipping into their retirements just to keep their lights on.”

Cost is also a prohibiting factor for Steele, who said that moving her wedding outside in order to accommodate the amended Executive Order would result in an additional $3,500 in spending.

“There are 36 people in my wedding party, with their spouses,” Steele said. “Then you add your immediately family in there. It’s like nobody at a wedding with 50 people. We have about 125 to 130 people who we’re expecting at the wedding. That’s, I would say, about an average wedding. I’m getting nervous.”

Steele got engaged in May 2020 and immediately began planning her wedding for June 2021, anticipating that many couples who could not get married last year because of the pandemic would postpone to the spring and summer of 2021. She said she was hopeful that she wouldn’t have to make any changes to what she envisioned for her wedding day earlier in the year, but as April approaches, her concern grows.

“It’s not only the stress of the actual wedding,” Steele said. “It’s the stress of, is it going to be open? Is it not? What if this? What if that?”

Steele and her fiancé are planning their wedding for the Science Museum of Virginia. It’s a place that’s particularly special to Steele.

“We were looking at some different options in a church or something, and I know that the Science Museum was an old train station,” she said. “My dad passed away a few years ago, and he worked for the railroad his entire life and he was really big into trains, and so it was kind of like a nod to him.”

With almost all of her wedding planning complete at this point, Steele said that making a decision on postponement or changes to the guest list will be last-minute.

“I probably won’t do anything until Memorial Day, hoping that, by the end of May, maybe the governor will open it back up,” she said.

Dunleavey said that no matter what, he and Huber are walking down the aisle on April 10.

“If we don’t get to celebrate with our friends and family, but then we can walk across the street and go into a smaller venue with people we don’t know, I’ve lost all respect for our local government,” he said. “I think they don’t realize how much suffering they have cost.”

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