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How COVID-19 Reshaped Weddings

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Kali Shine and her husband, Zach, got married at the Ewing Cultural Center last summer. The couple split up their wedding into a small ceremony with close family and friends, followed by a larger party with their full 125-person guest list to keep loved ones safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courtesy Kali Shine

The pandemic forced many couples to cancel or postpone their wedding days. Wedding season is ramping back up as safety guidelines ease and couples get tired of waiting. Ceremonies still might look different than they did before, but those walking down the aisle are OK with that.

Weddings take months to plan. It's stressful in normal times—and harder when you have no idea what will or won't be allowed for your special day.

Ewing Cultural Center had eight ceremonies on the books before the pandemic hit. Three-quarters of them didn't happen on schedule. Couples either pushed it back by months to a year or canceled altogether out of uncertainty.

Kristen Bernas, Ewing's office manager, said couples have had to temper expectations.

“No matter what, you can have your wedding here if you're good with the amount of guests. And so talking to these couples ... I want to sound hopeful, but I also don't want to give them false hope as well," Bernas said.

Couples have had to weigh COVID-19 safety guidelines and capacity limits when deciding when and whether to hold their wedding. Bride Angela Wirsing opted to livestream her ceremony to allow more people to participate.
Richard Lehner

Bernas said hope seems to be growing. Requests for tours and bookings are higher now than before the pandemic.

"I actually have booked a 2023 wedding. And I have somebody who now wants to book here in August. This August," she said. "They want to have their wedding. They've waited and waited."

For much of the past year, the cap on the number attending a wedding was 50 people. Bernas said that's about a third of the typical guest list.

Who's invited often gets contentious. But Bernas said, these days, winnowing is easier.

"During the time of COVID, everyone knows what's going on," she said. "People are going to be a little bit more forgiving if they can't come to your wedding, because you have to scale back on the numbers."

Many are embracing the smaller affairs.

Joe Palma owns Bloomington-based Palma Entertainment. He provides DJ services and live music for weddings and other events.

"Numbers are down as far as who can attend the wedding, sure. But that makes costs a little bit more attractive to (couples), I think," Palma said. "It's acceptable now to have a small wedding, when before it was embarrassing if you had a small wedding. Small, intimate weddings weren't really a fad."

Palma said smaller crowds don't mean couples forgo the party, but they are ditching some of the standard highlights.

"Traditions are kind of going out the window," Palma said. "Traditions like the ever so common cake cutting, the garter toss and bouquet toss—those things are starting to phase out. People are saying, 'I just want to have a good time.'"

The format of weddings also has a new shape.

Angela Wirsing and her husband, Thomas, stayed below capacity limits for their wedding earlier this year. Those in the industry say many couples are voluntarily keeping guest lists smaller than allowed under public health guidance.
Richard Lehner

Bride Angela Wirsing, 42, says her Plan B wedding in some ways turned out better than Plan A.

"We had actually planned a very large church wedding and we were going to do cake and punch in the church gym for anyone who wanted to come, I mean, kind of like an open call, y'all come, and then do a moderate sized, more traditional reception at a hotel," Wirsing said.

Wirsing said they compromised: The ceremony was live-streamed by her church. That meant even more people saw her union than originally planned—including friends and family states away that wouldn't have been able to make it otherwise.

Wirsing said in-person attendance was hit-or-miss. People they expected would come didn't. Others surprised them when they showed up.

Wirsing said she stayed lower than capacity limits, but it was still nerve-wracking.

"I think for me more than anything, it was not wanting to put anyone in a position where they might possibly get sick. I mean, you kind of recognize that there's an inherent risk in the people coming and they choose to come or not," Wirsing said.

Others are opting to split up their celebrations to keep guests safe.

Kali Shine got married at Ewing last summer. Instead of the 125 people she initially planned for, a few dozen family members and very close friends came.

She's now planning a second round: a larger party on the anniversary.

"We basically just chopped our wedding in half and we're going to be finishing it this year," Shine said.

Kali Shine and her husband, Zach, on their wedding day last fall.
Alex Harrison Photography

Shine said the pandemic put into perspective what really mattered.

"I was apprehensive about it for a while leading up to it, because I really had this idea of what I wanted the ceremony to look like," she said. "But at the end of the day, and after the year that it was, we were just really excited to just get married. Throughout COVID we kept saying, you know, as long as we're both there ... it really doesn't matter what else happens."

Shine said she didn't even think about COVID on her wedding day. And decades down the road, she says she won't remember it as something less than she wanted.

"What I think I will remember is that we we got to have two parties, basically. And I've actually had some friends say, 'This is kind of cool,' "Shine said. "I kind of wonder if people are going to choose to just do that in the future—doing a small thing to get to get married and then having a bigger party later."

Others are holding out for a traditional, grandiose event—and they just might get it.

Illinois is moving into the so-called bridge phase of Gov. JB Pritzker's reopening plan on Friday. That includes a big jump in capacity limits for social events: up to 250 indoors or 500 in outdoor venues.

But if those in the wedding industry have learned anything during the pandemic, it's to expect things to change—and fast.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.
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