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At least twice a week Judy Risteff hears about a tearful or fearful future bride and asks her a question that is practically impossible to answer: “When is it safe for me to plan my wedding?”
Risteff, founder and owner of the Vermont Wedding Association, has her best guess, which she also posted on the group’s website: “We are very hopeful for weddings in late summer and early fall 2021.” But when a bride recently squeezed her, “‘Hopeful?’ What does that mean anyway? ”
Risteff founded the Proctor-based, for-profit trading group 20 years ago as a one-stop shop for couples planning their Vermont wedding. At the time, she and her husband Paul were doing web and design work for the wedding industry. Realizing that no one in Vermont was hosting regular wedding shows – events where local and nongovernmental couples could meet dozen of wedding professionals in one place – they hosted one of their own. VWA held its first show at the Killington Grand Resort Hotel in 2001.
In a typical year, the group hosts six to eight wedding shows across the state, including one per month in the first quarter. As Risteff explained, at the beginning of the year, these events try to grab the point when most couples get engaged – between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day – and start planning their events.
The last year was of course anything but typical. Risteff only hosted one 2020 wedding show in Burlington last February before COVID-19 cleared almost all wedding-related events from the calendar.
Indeed, a wedding would be spot on if someone were to design the perfect super-spreader event: a large gathering of people of multiple generations, including the elderly and the frail, many of whom travel from different geographic locations to eat , drinking and partying for hours in the immediate vicinity.
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Prior to 2020, Vermont had an average of 5,500 weddings per year and was generating more than $ 160 million in economic activity based on data from the online wedding report. It would be difficult to identify an industry that has been harder hit by the pandemic than wedding-related companies, which include hotels, B & Bs, caterers, venues, bands, DJs, photographers, and tent companies. While such businesses don’t rely entirely on Vermont’s husbandry market, for many it is on the bread and butter.
The state’s lodging sector has reported average monthly losses of more than 96 percent since the pandemic began, according to an August report by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. the arts and entertainment sectors more than 89 percent; and the food service sector more than 86 percent.
In November, the state allowed up to 50 percent occupancy at wedding locations with a maximum of 75 people indoors and 150 people outdoors. However, after the COVID-19 cases increased during and after the holidays, the state imposed a ban on all indoor and outdoor social gatherings with multiple households in public and private spaces until further notice. At least one popular venue, Shelburne Farms, has announced that there will be no weddings in 2021.
Even so, wedding professionals are naturally optimists, Risteff noted, and they do their best to keep Soldiers going, even when it comes to finding alternative sources of income. But Risteff doesn’t know of any VWA member who has gone out of business, and she is seriously considering putting on an outdoor wedding show sometime this summer.
In fact, many weddings that have been postponed to 2020 will be postponed for later in the year – including couples who have already legally married in small ceremonies and now want the “big show,” Risteff said. But even when weddings resume, she expects couples and sellers to adhere to strict rules and guidelines of the state.
Dinner from the buffet, starters and self-service coffee and dessert stations? Don’t even think about her. As Risteff put it: “You don’t want food if someone has breathed on it.”
Likewise, beverages such as beer, wine and soda should be provided in their original containers. Many bar services aren’t even serving mixed drinks this year due to concerns about the spread of the virus. Others offer pre-mixed cocktails in lidded cups, while starters, meals and desserts are distributed in decorative take-away boxes.
In addition to current social distancing and mask wearing practices, Risteff also advises couples on not-so-obvious guidelines, including calculating the minimum number of hand sanitizer stations per square foot of event space and seating plans to group couples and families into COVID-19-safe pods as well as schedules and flowcharts to help diners know when and where to eat safely.
Despite Vermont’s restrictions, Risteff has heard stories of couples who became “villains” during the pandemic and hosted weddings that violated Vermont’s mandatory quarantine times, maximum guest limits, and contact tracing requirements.
“We shouldn’t be talking about it, but we know it is happening,” she said. “For me, they set a dangerous precedent. We all have a responsibility to protect one another.”
To protect themselves from lawsuits, some wedding vendors rewrite their contracts so they can “walk away” from an event if guests openly violate their pre-established rules.
Even if event planners and wedding venues comply with all government guidelines, there are no safety guarantees. In October, a 77-guest affair took place in the barn of Boyden Farm, Cambridge, which was supposed to be an outdoor event until a thunderstorm drove the celebration inside. At least seven guests later tested positive for COVID-19.
Risteff said episodes like this could be “the kiss of death” for venues doing their best to survive the pandemic. As she recently told a bride-to-be who was planning an outdoor affair in Stowe this August, be prepared for extra campground if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Since Risteff’s own business draws its income from a suffering industry, the VWA also suffered financial losses. Since all bridal masses were canceled and most of the 125 members had little or no income, the VWA imposed a moratorium on their membership fees, which, according to Risteff, “will remain in force until we can safely meet again”.
And because it hires on-demand staff for its wedding shows – with the exception of Risteff, who works from home, most of the staff are high school students – the VWA did not qualify for a Federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. Aside from a few modest grants to “keep the proverbial doors open,” the company had to weather this storm on its own.
“The biggest problem for people is that it seems endless,” said Risteff. “But at the end of the dark tunnel a light flickers and the light gets brighter. We just have to hold on a little longer.”