How coronavirus could change wedding culture — even after the pandemic ends

As the novel coronavirus outbreak unfolds, the modern wedding industry faces an unprecedented challenge and couples are downscaling their celebrations.
Emily Stanton and David Pilley are one of many couples downscaling their wedding ceremony in light of COVID-19.
Emily Stanton and David Pilley are one of many couples downscaling their wedding ceremony in light of COVID-19.Courtesy of Emily Stanton
/ Source: NBC News

Emily Stanton quickly went from wanting "every detail" of her wedding day to be perfect to getting excited at the prospect of getting married to her fiancé in a sundress in her Maryland backyard.

"At first, I threw myself a bit of a pity party since I watched all my friends and family get married and now I might not have my chance," said Stanton, who is currently uncertain whether her June wedding will take place as scheduled. "My dream wedding went from this big, magical fairytale of a wedding to, if I could, I'd go back in my backyard, grill up some burgers, throw on a sundress and get married under the tree there."

The coronavirus pandemic has affected just about every area of our lives — large events especially. The wedding industry's growth has traditionally been thought of as unstoppable even as global marriage rates decline. The logic behind this assumption is that rising expenditures on weddings will expand revenue even as fewer marriages take place.

And expenditures have indeed grown, along with the social media wedding industrial complex and the pressures to pull off a luxurious, grand-scale event. According to The Knot's 2019 Real Wedding Study, the average national cost of a wedding last year was $33,900, compared to $31,213 in 2014.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic unfolds, the modern wedding industry faces an unprecedented challenge, with brides-to-be, who've already spent thousands on nonrefundable deposits, caught in the crossfire. Yet while many decisions — such as whether the venue will be able to reopen or whether they can secure a marriage license — may ultimately be left out of their hands, many couples are purposefully choosing to downsize their wedding celebrations.

This decision to downsize is not just rooted in financial and safety considerations as a record number of people file for unemployment benefits and lockdown and social distancing measures endure. The pandemic has also forced a broader reckoning among some brides, inspiring them to reevaluate their priorities. In doing so, certain aspects they once thought were non-negotiable have become superfluous at the height of a global pandemic.

"Everything is so up in the air, from the date to whether the groomsmen's suits will be ready to being able to get a marriage license, to how many guests can come," Stanton's fiancé, David Pilley, who serves in the U.S. Army, said. "At this point, I'm just hoping we are able to get married before I deploy [in September]; whether it's the wedding we've been planning or just the two of us."

'I saw the reality of what I was spending on one day and it was a wake-up call'

Miranda Geng's upcoming wedding celebration looks drastically different than the one she had been planning in her head all her life. About a month ago, the bride-to-be rescheduled her May wedding to November, cut her guest list from 150 attendees to 50 attendees and opted for more economical floral arrangements than the ones she had originally envisioned.

"Wedding culture is usually sold as ‘your perfect day’ and once that wasn’t possible anymore, I saw the reality of what I was spending on one day and it was a wake-up call," Geng told NBC News. "I spent half a year looking for and interviewing vendors. I had huge Excel spreadsheets noting all the nitty-gritty details and it all became very complicated and I just couldn't be bothered anymore."

Geng recognizes that other brides, whom she has connected with online through Facebook groups and Reddit threads swapping ideas about how to plan during the outbreak, are more distraught than she is about the change in their wedding plans. She said that because her wedding is far enough out, she was able to choose how to downsize and then realized she didn’t actually want the added frills. Her fiancé is a teacher whose hours were recently reduced, solidifying her desire to spend “on the things I want to spend on.”

“My mindset shifted completely and I felt more free once I started looking at it as a regular party,” Geng said. “I realized I was influenced by my friends who had these grand events and when costs started racking up, I shrugged it off as normal.”

Lindsay Ewell already had to change course once for her wedding, which is still scheduled to take place in June. Her venue, Noah's Event Center in San Antonio, filed for bankruptcy in 2019 — a move unrelated to the coronavirus. The venue was ordered to cease all operations in February and Ewell lost out on the deposit. She has since rebooked with another place and has cut her original guest list from 150 to just nine people for social distancing purposes.

"One thing that works out really nicely is that with a larger wedding, even if it has all people you love and care about and want to be there, you just get swarmed," Ewell said. "There's no ability to really spend quality time with the people you're closest to in your life because you're mobbed by well-wishers ... That is something I'm looking forward to with the smaller ceremony. It'll be a nice sit-down dinner with just our parents and my siblings and have a good memory of us spending quality time at our wedding."

Few couples are outright canceling their weddings

While it may be too early to tell how coronavirus will affect the wedding industry in the long-term, Lauren Kay, executive editor of The Knot, told NBC News that "when large gatherings are permitted again" she anticipates weddings will be among the "first events to thrive again."

"It will definitely take some time to define what 'normal' looks like again for events and weddings following the COVID-19 pandemic," Kay said. "There will definitely be a ramp-up period and consumers who are hesitant to travel or be in large crowds at first, but what the coronavirus has done for so many is show them the value of human connection with those near and dear to their hearts."

Kay cites data from The Knot showing that only 4 percent of couples have outright canceled their weddings as indication that the industry will "thrive" post-pandemic.

The shift in perspective could be permanent

Yet given how rapidly COVID-19 has changed daily norms, industry experts and brides-to-be alike say the outbreak could forever change wedding culture as we know it. According to Zola, a wedding registry and planning company, more couples are scheduling weekday weddings in 2020 and scheduling ceremonies and receptions on different days. Coronavirus may also give wedding attire new meaning.

"I don't want to offend people, but I'm going to be in contact with all these people, so maybe for the wedding we say "I love you, but we're not going to do any hugs or handshakes," Dena Varvitsiotis, a bride-to-be, said. "Maybe we have people wear gloves and masks if they feel uncomfortable. That could be the new norm."

Varvitsiotis and her fiancé come from big Greek and Italian families and will have to downsize her guest list, which contains hundreds of people — one of the hardest parts of wedding planning. She is considering live-streaming the ceremony and may plan to have separate blessings with older relatives who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus so as not to put them at risk.

Although it is inevitably somewhat sad to downscale their weddings, brides say the coronavirus has helped put things in perspective.

"In the end it's all about marrying the person you love, so at least you get to do that. Try and focus on that and maybe also drink a lot of wine," Varvitsiotis said. "There are so many things after the wedding. This is is a huge day, but there's so much more to look forward to, and in the end you're going to look back and say, 'hey, I was a part of history' because this is going to be one for the history books."