Jesse Pack and Ruth Mess had been planning their wedding for six months. It was going to be March 21 at Providence Academy in downtown Vancouver, with more than 150 guests including friends and family flying in from far-flung parts of the country.
But as the final weeks ticked down, the ongoing news of the coronavirus outbreak slowly grew from a distant background noise to an omnipresent, unavoidable disruptive event. Mess said she remembers the point when the couple began to seriously consider whether to change their plans; it was the day Italy announced that the entire country would be going into lockdown.
At the time, Washington’s statewide stay-at-home order had not yet been issued, but officials were already advising to avoid large gatherings like weddings, particularly if there would be older, more vulnerable attendees.
“It was a week before (the wedding),” Pack said. “We just weren’t exactly sure what to do.”
At Mess’s suggestion, they decided to improvise. They held the ceremony five days early, with about 20 friends and family members at the Fort Vancouver gazebo. The weather cooperated, offering a sunny and relatively warm day in the middle of an otherwise rainy month.
They were able to get the word out far enough in advance that most family members were able to either cancel their travel plans or arrive early for the smaller ceremony — Pack’s brother and sister-in-law drove down from Puyallup the night before, and Mess’s grandmother attended as well, watching the ceremony from a nearby car.
“It was a hard call to make because there was so much put into it, but we’re really happy with the day that it was,” Pack said.
There was no way to take the planned honeymoon trip to Mexico — like many other Vancouver residents, Pack and Mess have had to spend the past couple of weeks stuck at home, worrying about their jobs. But they plan to take a new trip once the crisis is over, and they both said they’re glad they still found a way to have the wedding.
“I feel like it’s going to be a great story forever,” Mess said.
Unfortunately, Pack and Mess’s story is a rare bright spot in an otherwise harsh landscape for Clark County’s wedding and event industry in the past month. Multiple local wedding and event planners have reported mass postponements, essentially bringing the industry to a standstill.
The statewide stay-at-home order prevents all gatherings, so any weddings in the immediate future have no choice but to cancel or postpone. And it’s not just weddings: Big milestone events like bar mitzvahs also need to be pushed back, often without an alternative date readily available.
“Some people are having to postpone a whole year,” said Rebecca Foster, owner of event planning agency Indigo Event Design.
Elizabeth Nunez, owner of event planning company Soleil Bliss, said she’s found that most service vendors have shown considerable flexibility to allow hosts to reschedule, but there’s a palpable undercurrent of anxiety running through the whole industry — among vendors, planners and clients alike.
Even for weddings that are still several months down the road, planners said the uncertainty of the pandemic presents an agonizing decision for couples and other event hosts who have put months of work into planning the events.
Some couples may opt to push their weddings back all the way to next year, just to play it safe. But that could lead to potential scheduling bottleneck issues at popular local venues that will already be booked to serve the events that were originally planned for 2021, said Melodi Ramquist, owner of planning agency 1000 Stories.
“You’re not gaining any weekends next year,” she said.
Foster said she’s urging all her clients to begin working with vendors and making concrete plans for backup options, although she said couples whose weddings are scheduled for June or later in the summer can still wait a bit longer before making a final decision.
As for couples who do need to postpone, Foster said she’s urging them to communicate as much as possible with their guests — calling, emailing and even in some cases mailing out formal printed postponement notices.
Early spring isn’t the peak wedding season, according to multiple planners, but it’s not far off. Weddings and other events begin to increase in frequency as soon as the weather begins to warm up, peaking around August. That popularity, coupled with the number of current postponements, is likely to lead to a spike in weddings in the late summer, Foster said.
Of course, she added, that’s assuming the pandemic has been brought under control by then and the stay-at-home measures are lifted — and that outcome is far from guaranteed.
Even if the situation resolves relatively quickly, there are also concerns about lingering impacts.
The wedding industry landscape may be completely different by the time pandemic is over, Nunez said. Some vendors may not be financially able to ride out the pandemic, and they might not be back afterwards.
“It’s scary,” she said. “You just don’t know. It’s a big unknown.”
Foster said she’s concerned the outbreak could trigger a longer economic downtown, which would likely be damaging for the wedding planning industry. And Ramquist said she worried that after months of quarantine, people might remain concerned about congregating in large groups.
“When events and gatherings come back, will people flock to them?” she said.