Trimmed guests lists, lost deposits and the struggle of Lehigh Valley wedding planning during a pandemic

Life is just too short to wait.

That was the mantra of Sarah Estevez of Bethlehem when she decided to trim a wedding guest list of nearly 200 people to five and entirely nix having a reception. The decision came after Estevez postponed her nuptials — from April 19 to Aug. 2 — due to the coronavirus pandemic. On March 19, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the shutdown of all non-essential businesses and banned large gatherings, which included wedding venues and weddings.

“I had a bad feeling,” Estevez recalled in late February when she initially heard of positive COVID-19 cases spiking across the United States. “As soon as I heard, something inside me said, ‘Nope, this doesn’t feel right.’ “

What wasn’t halted was the plan for Estevez and her then fiance, Terry Ghali of Bethlehem, to move into their first home — something that happened three days prior to their original April 19 wedding date. At that point, the couple decided to revert back to the original plan of marrying on April 19 without the big reception.

“We had the house at that point and we wanted to get married,” Estevez said. “We said, ‘Let’s not have this pandemic ruin everything.’ It was still the best day of my life.”

The plan now is to eventually still have a party to celebrate in April 2021. But if COVID-19 cases continue to spike nationally, Estevez said she has no problem pulling the plug on the large gathering all together.

“I already had my day,” she said. “It was perfect as it was. We say 2020 sucked for everyone but not us. We feel really blessed.”

Wedding planning during the coronavirus pandemic

Pictured are Frank Lukaitis and Karen Fuica of Bethlehem. The couple have nixed plans for a larger reception during the coronavirus pandemic and plan to get married this August in a Rose Garden ceremony in Allentown. (Courtesy photo)

Karen Fuica of Bethlehem also has decided to forgo a big dream wedding and instead, is planning to get married this month at Allentown’s Rose Garden followed by a smaller reception at a city restaurant. Indoor dining capacity was opened at 50% once counties hit the green phase of Wolf’s color-coded plan, but the governor in recent weeks rolled that number back to 25%.

The restrictions, Fuica said, forced them to eliminate a professional photographer at the reception because she has maxed out the amount of people allowed at the eatery with just immediate family totaling 25. Fuica is one of six children.

The attendance already is slashed from an original plan of upward of 140 people at Evergreen Lake in Bath. The reception was booked shortly after New Year’s 2020 and prior to coronavirus cases spiking across the U.S.

Before invitations even went out, Fuica began receiving responses from guests asking her to postpone. Some were traveling from other states with a higher concentration of positive cases. Under state orders, some guests would have had to quarantine for 14 days upon returning from the Pennsylvania wedding.

Fuica said when the couple inquired about canceling all together at Evergreen Lake, an event planner told them they would lose their $750 deposit. The other option would be to postpone or delay the wedding.

They didn’t want to wait. The couple are high school sweethearts who have dated for eight years already. They would be headed into a 4-year engagement waiting until 2021.

“Things are just getting more and more strict,” Fuica said of venues. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. Nobody saw this coming. Yes, we had a contract. But this isn’t some stormy weather, this is a pandemic.”

A media spokesperson for Evergreen Lake did not return repeated email and phone messages for information about the venue’s event policies.

A huge fear many of the brides-to-be interviewed for this story told lehighvalleylive.com is losing similar deposits or worse, having to pay more to rebook in 2021. There also are uncertainties about whether venues will shutdown due to pandemic financial hardships. At least one couple interviewed by lehighvalleylive.com has put down thousands of dollars to hold a venue for an event next year. Another said just four dates were left available in 2021 at her venue when she inquired about postponing and just one matched the availability of all vendors hired.

Some contracts could legally be protected under “force majeure,” a common contractual provision that excuses either party from liability and fulfilling its obligation due to uncontrollable events, such as extreme weather or other “acts of God.”

Nicholas Sandercock, a litigator with specialties in contract and wedding law for the Allentown-based law firm Gross McGinley, said it is not uncommon for a “force majeure” to be worded so that it appears to only protect the venue/vendor. However, he said, such clauses do not per se permit a venue/vendor to simply keep a couple’s money when the wedding has become an impossibility. Additionally, the Attorney General’s Office has issued guidance about wedding venues not using the coronavirus pandemic to take advantage of couples whose weddings have been impacted.

“All that being said, every situation is unique, as is how the law applies to that situation,” Sandercock said. “… the best thing to do is have someone guide you through what your rights are under the law before you’re willing to give a venue more money or simply give up on receiving a refund that may be rightfully yours.”

Sandercock said contracts also can be changed given the pandemic and green phase guidelines set forth by the state. These can pertain to occupancy, limiting outdoor gatherings to 250 people, social distancing tables by six feet, and mandating guests wear masks at venues. He also warned places of worship may have different guidelines than most venues.

“Put simply, ‘green’ does not mean normal,” he said. “Accordingly, just because the county your venue is in has moved to green, does not necessarily mean that your wedding can go on as planned.”

Major Lehigh Valley venues, such as the SteelStacks campus at ArtsQuest, however, said they are willing to work with couples affected by the pandemic.

This includes moving a reception from indoors to outdoors. Any deposits can be rolled to new dates or can be refunded minus about $250-$500 in administrative fees, said Susan M. Drexinger, vice president of hospitality and food service for SteelStacks.

“ArtsQuest is being very flexible and understanding, with clients during this very difficult time,” she said.

Brynn Levine, marketing manager for Historic Hotel Bethlehem, said contracts at that venue are being weighed on a “case-by-case basis.”

Wedding planning during the coronavirus pandemic

Pictured are Stephanie Barylsky and Tyler Nansteel, along with Barylsky’s daughter, Olivia. The couple are planning an Aug. 8, 2020 wedding at the Chelsea Sun Inn in Upper Mount Bethel Township. (Jessie V photography)

‘Microweddings’: It’s a thing

“What is known as “microweddings” or smaller intimate celebrations and elopements are trending since the pandemic began in March, one area wedding planner said.

Abbey Olsen, owner of the Easton-based wedding planning service, Borroughed with Love Co., said it’s not uncommon for couples during the pandemic to steer away from larger celebrations given health and safety risks.

The average cost of a backyard celebration could be around $2,000 give or take a few hundred dollars, depending on the party size, details and other customization, she said. Compare that to costs of a larger, traditional wedding ceremony and reception, which according to a 2019 survey done by TheKnot.com, costs an average of $33,900 nationally and anywhere from $24,675 to $40,274 overall for Pennsylvania. That includes the cost of engagement ring, vendors, ceremony and reception, but not the honeymoon. The average national size of a 2019 wedding was 131 guests.

COVID-19 restrictions in the green phase of the governor’s plan are cutting guest lists by at least 25 people for indoor celebrations, Olsen said. A bride-to-be herself, Olsen cut her list for an Aug. 8 celebration by 45% due personal health and safety reasons. A major task for her company was to trim a 400-person bash at a venue to a wedding at a home with only 100 guests so that it complied with Wolf’s executive order.

“Respectfully leaving that choice up to their guests is something that no other brides outside of this pandemic ever had to do,” Olsen said. “The 2020 brides are faced with challenges daily that no one can truly understand. Instead of the ‘We are so happy for you! We can’t wait to celebrate,’ They get the, ‘Are you sure your wedding is still on?’ or ‘That’s selfish of you to not put your guests safety first.’ “

Olsen, however, does warn that while microweddings can be cost effective, they also can be more stressful given the unpredictability of weather, finding space to prepare large portions of food, keeping food options hot or cold, and the additional tasks of bringing in restrooms or adding extra electricity.

A yard wedding takes days to set up while a ballroom can be set up in just a few hours, Olsen said.

Natalie Painter of Alpha said her daughter, Annalyssa Painter of Alpha, had to scale down a 250-guest wedding to now 100 people at Alpha-based Almond Tree. The decision was based both on some guests feeling uneasy about travel during the pandemic and the guidelines set for large gatherings. They are planning a Nov. 14 wedding but do have a Plan B to hold the wedding at a private farm in the event of another shutdown.

Postponing also wasn’t an option for Annalyssa and her fiance, a member of the U.S. Air Force. The couple will be flying back to his base shortly after the nuptials. Natalie described planning a wedding in the middle of a global pandemic as nothing short of a nightmare.

“We are basically hoping and praying right now,” she said.

Savvy microwedding couples, though, are taking saved cash from nixed lavish set-ups and using it for down payments on homes, exotic honeymoons, and paying down hefty student loans. The other trend is using that saved cash for later — a newer term in the wedding industry known as the “sequel wedding.”

Wedding planning during the coronavirus pandemic

Christine and Ricky Bell of Hanover Township, Northampton County nixed plans for a large celebration and got married anyway during Gov. Tom Wolf’s yellow phase of reopening this past June. (Cannon Media)

Christine Bell of Hanover Township, Northampton County is one of those brides.

She married her then fiance, Ricky Bell, in recent months when the couple had to delay a destination wedding among 35 guests in Turks and Caicos. The pandemic led to a shut down of the island’s airport.

The couple decided to elope with just the officiant, Ricky’s two daughters from a previous marriage, and a friend as a witness in attendance. They celebrated at the home of a good friend afterward with six people. They still plan to dance the night away in Turks and Caicos — but this won’t be until next year and will likely be to celebrate their first anniversary.

“It ended up being really meaningful,” Bell said of eloping. “Much more meaningful than I thought.”

Other traditions leading up the big day, such as bridal showers, bachelor or bachelorette parties, and bridal party get-togethers also are going on the chopping block during the pandemic. Receiving lines after ceremonies are becoming obsolete. Some are even giving up wedding cakes and eliminating dessert buffets due to health and safety concerns.

Amy Kocher of Bethlehem cut back on nearly all of those traditions for her August wedding at Waldheim Beethoven Club in Hellertown. She has zero regrets.

“We knew it was our special day and we didn’t need all the bells and whistles to be happy,” Kocher said of her and fiance, William Neary.

A challenge, however, are new alcohol restrictions given the pandemic. For restaurants that have bars, alcohol can only be served to those dining and seated at a booth or table — no bar service, according to the guidelines. This has added an open versus cash bar now to the plans — something the couple didn’t initially budget for, Kocher said.

The tradition of trying on wedding gowns with entire bridal parties also has gone by the wayside. Brides interviewed for this story said some boutiques have made bridesmaids wait outside in the heat because they were at full capacity inside. Others say they were only allowed to try on five dresses per day and had to return the next day to try on another five.

Some dresses remain in garment bags because the March shutdown has stalled alterations. Many boutiques also have banned touching of the sales racks.

“It makes shopping very difficult,” Kocher said.

Wedding planning during the coronavirus pandemic

Darryl Schweitzer and his fiancee, Ashley Erdie, of Bangor. Schweitzer grew a sunflower garden in his back yard for the celebration, set for August. (Courtesy photo)

The majority of couples also are making accommodations for those who are elderly or have underlying health conditions. At least one couple plans to livestream the nuptials for those unable to attend.

As an added precaution, some independently are incorporating guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those interviewed for this story discussed mandating face masks while shuttling visitors from parking lots to venues and while seated at outdoor ceremonies. Others are placing hand sanitizer bottles at table centerpieces and incorporating them as favors tied with ribbon.

Darryl Schweitzer, an employee of B Braun Medical, is planning to conduct temperature checks, having guests fill out brief questionnaires regarding any COVID-19 symptoms, and supplying masks for every attendee.

“The last thing that I want is for any one of them to get sick because of me,” Schweitzer said.

He also nixed a fancy venue and instead is planting a sunflower garden himself in the back yard of his home. A tent for the party will take care of any unpleasant weather. If all goes well, Schweitzer and fiancee, Ashley Erdie of Bangor, will say their vows this month surrounded by 100 guests.

“We can’t control the state of the world but we can still celebrate love,” Schweitzer said.

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Pamela Sroka-Holzmann may be reached at [email protected].

Ann C. Toledo

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