Working Together During Social Distancing

Amy Shack Egan, the owner of Modern Rebel, a wedding planning business in Dumbo, Brooklyn, is not exactly a sports fan. But in mid-April she watched the Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” with her husband. What was shaping up to be the darkest Brooklyn wedding season in memory suddenly looked brighter.

“Somebody said to Michael Jordan when his team was down in the third quarter, ‘We’ll get ’em next game,’” she said. “And Michael Jordan said, ‘Next game? What about the fourth quarter?’” For Ms. Shack Egan, “a light bulb went off. I told my husband, ‘I feel like the game’s not over. I’ve just got to be more creative.’”

Ms. Shack Egan had already shown initiative in rallying her colleagues in the face of coronavirus-induced ruin. Two weeks earlier, she organized a Zoom call with 75 Brooklyn wedding vendors, including photographers, D.J.’s and florists, to discuss how to navigate the collapse of wedding season. The documentary energized her to recruit them into a collective.

“We did a pivot to virtual and contact-free weddings,” she said. “So many of our colleagues were willing to pivot with us. And now things are starting to change.”

Since the end of April, Modern Rebel has been coordinating weddings for couples who are choosing to marry virtually or in scaled-down gatherings. Clients — more than a dozen so far — are sent a menu of virtual add-ons to the base price of $399 that includes invitations, a Zoom rehearsal and a day-of timeline, and a silent stage manager in the chat box to cue readings by virtual guests. These add-ons range from two-hour virtual dance parties hosted by popular Brooklyn wedding D.J.’s to custom poems by Ars Poetica emailed to guests as favors, or catered post-vows dinners for two from partners like the Pixie and the Scout, a Brooklyn-based caterer, delivered contact free.

Vendors in other cities are joining forces to salvage a wedding-season fourth quarter that may have seemed beyond saving, too.

In Philadelphia, for example, “we’re relying on each other much more for business advice, like what should we be telling our clients or how should we be updating our policies,” said Caitlin Maloney Kuchemba, the owner of the Clover Event Company, a boutique wedding planning business in Norristown, Pa.

This camaraderie has been especially helpful for handling clients looking to celebrate twice — once on their original wedding date, and again in a bigger way in 2021, when many expect social-distancing regulations are expected to be lifted. “People want to know,” Ms. Kuchemba said, “Do we consider a smaller celebration part of the original event? Or is it a whole new event that requires new contracts?”

A network of about 20 Philadelphia-area vendors has arrived at pricing for what she called “mini ceremonies” in a back yard or living room, on a couple’s intended wedding day. For the flowers, photography and coordination, pricing starts at around $3,000.

Ms. Kuchemba has also formed an alliance called 660 Collective with three other vendors to provide micro-weddings for 10 guests or fewer, in a shared Norristown studio (weddings start at $3,500). And with three different vendors, she formed a network called the Gush to put on a free 2021 wedding for a pair of essential workers nominated by the community.

“Gush came about after we started speaking as a group about how Covid has affected the industry,” Ms. Kuchemba said. “When the virus first came, we were all in reaction mode, figuring out postponements. Now a lot of us in this area have pivoted to ‘What can we do right now? What can we do to give couples something to look forward to?’”

In Northern New Jersey, Ellen Hockley Harrison, the owner of Greater Good Events in Jersey City, N.J., is tightening her ties to a group of vendors she liked working before the Covid-19 outbreak. “The idea of a collective was something my team had been discussing for quite some time, because we tend to try to work with women- or minority-owned businesses, and we also try to be on the eco-friendly side,” Ms. Hockley Harrison said. She is now partnering with about eight businesses that fit those descriptions to put on weddings that conform to Gov. Phil Murphy’s guidelines. Currently, up to 10 people can gather for indoor celebrations in New Jersey, and up to 25 outdoors.

“In the next six months, we think the wedding industry is going to start opening up but on a much smaller scale,” Ms. Hockley Harrison said. “So right now, we’re providing resources to clients who come to us saying, ‘OK, we’re ready to put on a wedding for 25 guests or fewer.’” A small at-home wedding package with her collective, including a dress rental, flowers and table arrangements, will cost about $3,500. If restrictions loosen, the group will work together to scale up. “The goal is to help make the process less daunting for couples,” she said. “Because right now everything is so confusing.”

Some wedding-vendor alliances are being formed just to clear away this confusion. In Atlanta, Laetitia Towson, the owner of the event planning company House of BASH, is on the phone daily with a loose collective of nearby D.J./s, venue representatives and other wedding professionals. “We’re just trying to get a feel for what we can and cannot do,” she said. Though Georgia nightclubs have been allowed to reopen, rules for weddings, she said, have not been addressed by the governor or mayor. But keeping up with social distancing and crowd size mandates is not the only reason the wedding community needs to stay in touch.

“We’re hearing of catering companies going under, smaller shops going under, people selling their businesses,” Ms. Towson said. “It’s scary for couples, not knowing what services are going to be available to them if they postpone to 2021.”

It’s scarier still for small businesses struggling to survive and unsure when social-distancing rules might be eased. The Massachusetts Coalition of Wedding Vendors, already 900 members strong, was formed to get to the bottom of what rules are currently governing Massachusetts weddings and for how long.

“In general, we need some kind of guidance,” said Nelly Saraiva, a wedding and boudoir photographer in Acushnet, Mass., who started the collective in April. When Governor Charlie Baker recently released new guidelines, she said, “it showed that some outdoor weddings can begin to take place in limited numbers when we get to Phase 3 of reopening, but it doesn’t say what those numbers are. It’s impossible for us to make decisions and to help our couples make decisions.”

The group has written letters to state representatives asking for answers, not just about wedding rules but also about financial help for ailing colleagues.

  • Updated June 22, 2020

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“Typically we wouldn’t talk about our individual policies for people demanding deposits back and that sort of thing, but now we’re working together,” Ms. Saraiva said.

The shared concern will be especially helpful when Massachusetts gatherings are opened to more than 10 people.

“We’ll need to know things like, what if I’m hired to take pictures for a wedding and I’m stuck in a tiny hotel room with eight or 10 girls getting ready and there’s no social distancing,” she said, expressing concerns about who might be liable should clients fail to follow social-distancing guidelines or someone becomes ill. “Liability is a huge thing for vendors.”

As eager as she and her colleagues are to get back to work, Ms. Saraiva admits that if she were a bride, she would postpone her wedding until the pandemic fully passes. “I wouldn’t want to worry about whether the girls in the wedding party are going to be willing to have their hair and makeup done and then put a mask on, how many people can sit at a table six feet apart, who’s in charge of policing,” she said. “Right now, I don’t see how we can get to a new normal. But at least we’re all working closer together now. That’s been a good thing.”