A Tale of Two Weddings

Couples weigh when and how to say ‘I do’ in a pandemic

Written by Abby Meyer and Abby Radewahn, video produced by Abby Meyer

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. They had everything before them, they had nothing before them. Brides and grooms recently engaged and planning their dream weddings were trapped in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. Families could not travel to attend, venues limited guest lists and even a first kiss as a married couple felt suspect. Couples were not worried about catching cold feet, but lived in fear of common cold symptoms that could be the coronavirus.

Even under normal circumstances, wedding planning pressures couples to meet high expectations. With limits on in-person gatherings, both couples and vendors have had to find ways to celebrate in more creative and intimate ways; shifting focus from the cake tastings and place settings to the people they hold closest and the love that brought them together. Couples are worried about something much bigger than a rowdy uncle who had one too many at the bar — how to prevent the spread of a deadly virus.

In April, state officials implemented restrictions on gatherings and nonessential travel to help flatten the curve. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, group gatherings should be restricted to fewer than 50 people, while state guidelines currently propose no more than 10 people. Couples are faced with the moral dilemma of holding a wedding during a public health crisis or a potentially costly postponement. Those who decide to host celebrations risk the happiest day of their lives turning into a superspreader event that threatens the health of friends and family. Coronavirus couples are now searching for creative solutions to get hitched, while still abiding by ever-changing coronavirus guidelines as they redefine the traditional wedding ceremony and reception.

I Do, Take Two

Alex Schad, a Wisconsin native and coronavirus bride, dreamed of being surrounded by family and friends at her fall wedding. She met Michael Mulhaney, her future husband, at Concordia University Wisconsin in physical therapy school, and they have been trekking across the country together ever since. As traveling physical therapists, they had more than one picture-perfect opportunity for a surprise proposal, and Michael chose a hike in Yosemite National Park to pop the question in April 2019.

Alex Schad and Michael Mulhaney pose for photos in Yosemite National Park. The couple had planned to be married in the fall 2020, but after weighing the threats of the pandemic, postponed the reception until next October. Photo by Jenny Collen Photography

The couple set their wedding date for October, and almost everything was in place when the state went into lockdown in March. Their reception venue did not offer an option to postpone without losing their deposit, so Alex and Michael continued with their plans despite growing concerns from their family and friends. As the big day grew closer, chances of holding the wedding they planned grew slimmer. The guest list got smaller, bridal shops were closed and ring shopping was put on hold. The threat from the virus grew, and relatives began to express their concerns about attending. 

“That was really hard, because everyone wanted to give their opinion, ‘Oh, you should postpone!’ But we literally couldn’t unless we wanted to lose all of our money,” Alex says. 

The virus posed more of a threat than they originally anticipated, and relatives began to express their concerns about attending. Torn between protecting her loved ones and her dream wedding, Alex did not know what to do. The wedding she had planned went from fairy tale to nightmare seemingly overnight. “I honestly felt like I was planning a funeral,” Alex says.

Just two months before their wedding date, Alex and Michael’s reception venue allowed them to postpone until October 2021. 

It was so hard,” Alex says. “I’d say it probably was the hardest decision we’ve had to make so far as a couple.”

The finances of a wedding are often difficult to work through, and a pandemic makes that process even more arduous. Weddings are expensive and a pandemic can add even more costs. Postponement poses the chance of losing expensive deposits on venues, catering, photographers and other vendors. Opting for a smaller and more intimate outdoor wedding isn’t always cheaper either, according to Kirstie Warren and Mallory Wedel, sisters and co-founders of Elevate Events, a wedding and event planning firm based in Madison. 

“People are now thinking, ‘Well, I have a smaller guest count, let’s up the game in terms of floral and details,’ which is so fun and we would encourage that because now is the time,” Warren says. 

Once health officials deemed outdoor gatherings safer, Warren and Wedel encouraged their clients to move events outside or postpone to 2021. Many are opting for a more intimate ceremony now and making plans to hold a larger reception next year. “There are some couples who are like, ‘Let’s just make it small. Let’s just have a wedding.’ And they’re good with that,” Warren says. “I think it comes down to people’s priorities.”

Still Getting Hitched

After rescheduling twice, Sarah Best and Dan Bjerre faced a reality they would never have imagined when they got engaged at Disneyland only a year prior. The couple was forced to make a difficult decision: stream the ceremony online with no family present or delay for an indefinite period of time. With only 10 people allowed at their church ceremony, the Bjerres’ guest list already included a pastor, tech crew, a photographer and a live string quartet. Music was an integral part of their love story, since they met at an orchestra, so having live music made their day special. 

“Even though people weren’t there with us in person, it filled the space. It filled the space with joy and love and music,” Sarah says.

While the church pews remained empty and their family members were scattered around the globe, they live-streamed the ceremony on YouTube and played a photo slideshow of friends and family in place of a wedding party. 

Sarah Best and Dan Bjerre held a live-streamed wedding ceremony during the pandemic. Photo by Steve Noll, SNoll Photography

“While the musicians were playing their final songs, we got to look through everyone’s comments, and that helped because that made us feel like they were there, too,” Sarah says.

Instead of a traditional wedding reception, the couple sat on their front lawn with a “Just Married” sign fixed to their picket fence. Local guests stopped by to throw confetti at the newlyweds and enjoy celebratory doughnuts. 

Vendors have seen these non-traditional weddings become more popular, says Rachel Nicole, a wedding photographer in Milwaukee. Her clients had to think creatively if they wanted to pull off their weddings this year. 

“Moving forward, obviously it’s going to be traditional, big weddings. Absolutely,” Nicole says. “But I think fewer people will do that and more people will go elope somewhere. And I think the wedding industry has been moving towards that for a while.”

Specifically, Nicole has seen a huge uptick in small, backyard weddings (think “Father of the Bride” with 200 fewer guests) that have created space for more personal touches, like a wedding pizza instead of a wedding cake, something she hopes is here to stay.

Though her approach to wedding photography captures a range of moments from a couple’s special day — not just the picture-perfect ones — she has never photographed a moment quite like one of her favorites from this year: the bride and groom masked-up, kissing in front of a graffiti wall that reads, “Everything’s F—ed.” 

A bride and groom wear masks while sharing a kiss in Milwaukee. Their opportunely chosen backdrop speaks to the commonly held feelings that come with attempting a wedding in the middle of a pandemic. Photo by Rachel Nicole Photography