When couples come to social event designer Ieasha James to hire her for a wedding, she has been asking them a simple question: Do you maybe want a smaller event?
James, owner of Boston-based Endless Flair Events, has watched COVID case counts tick back up since July. Even during the more optimistic months of spring and early summer, when it seemed like widespread vaccination and mask-wearing would help control the spread of COVID-19 — and usher in some long-awaited normalcy for the wedding industry — James reminded her clients that the virus was still something they should take seriously.
Then came rules requiring masks at indoor events in Boston and nearby communities from Somerville to Salem. Yet only two couples James is working with plan to delay their weddings in hopes of a bigger, mask-free, celebration.
“Since I’ve built so much trust with my clients, they listen to me,” James said. “Everyone can see the numbers. It only makes sense to keep the guest count low or switch the date.”
So most of her clients are going ahead with their weddings, with adjustments: masking, moving celebrations outdoors while the weather still allows for it, making smaller guest lists. James said she encourages clients to see this as an opportunity to celebrate their marriage in a way that feels more authentic to them, rather than be bound by tradition: Maybe they don’t invite 200 people, but they can get creative with games and lounges for the guests who do come.
“It gives me an opportunity to show my clients that there’s more than one way to have a wedding,” James said.
As the pandemic drags on, wedding planners and couples who have waited more than a year to finally tie the knot are facing a new wave of COVID-related concerns and restrictions. While there are many measures couples can take to make transmission less likely at their weddings — requiring vaccinations, masking, and moving celebrations outdoors — worries about large gatherings remain.
Still, said David O’Donnell, vice president of strategic communications at the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, most weddings at local hotels are still going on as scheduled. Some hotels post signs serving as “gentle reminders” for guests to mask up. One local hotel, he said, is seeing more couples move their ceremonies outdoors and welcome guests with letters explaining local mask mandates.
“So many couples are just fed up with canceling,” he said. “So for this fall they are proceeding with their ceremony and celebration despite the new mandate.”
But smaller weddings are not always feasible. Aarati Naidu, co-owner of Boston-based Firgun Events, said the large South Asian weddings she and her business partner Shruti Saini specialize in require a lot of flexibility to plan these days. Before the pandemic, a typical 300-person wedding with multiple events over the course of a few days would take about 18 months to plan. Now, so much feels uncertain.
One thing that hasn’t been much of an issue, Naidu said, is mask-wearing.
“Luckily, the families that we have worked with, they are all on the same page with the CDC, they want to make sure that everybody is being safe, being healthy,” Naidu said. “It’s helpful when we work with clients who are educated, who are also empathetic toward people who are immune-compromised and families with kids.”
But their clients worry what other restrictions may be on their way if case numbers continue to climb, and about what traditions they will or won’t be able to follow. Will the musical Sangeet celebrations be possible if dance floors become no-go zones? If gathering sizes are restricted again, can couples shift from the large celebration they imagined to one without extended family?
Anticipating all the variables takes a lot of work.
“This is true of the entire entertainment industry: We’ve had to plan the same wedding multiple times. We are not getting paid multiple times,” Naidu said.
Being prepared means having guests make tiered invitation lists, she said, and sending out invitations in stages depending on local case counts and restrictions. It means connecting with vendors who are scrambling with challenges of their own, from caterers to hair and makeup artists to musicians and DJs juggling ever-shifting calendars. It means getting to know clients well enough, often over the course of multiple years, to be able to advocate for what they would want when something falls through. It means endlessly researching options and mandates before breaking bad news to clients.
There have been lovely moments, Naidu said, when families approach them at the end of a wedding and thank them for giving them an opportunity to celebrate. And there has also been a lot of hard work.
“I can’t predict where COVID is going to take us, even tomorrow,” she said. “What we can do is be prepared. And that’s what we do.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.