Alicia Wiley, a Baltimore-based wedding photographer, has been turning down plenty of business lately.
“The weddings that I’m getting approached about are no different than a normal inquiry I would get any other time,” she said, with couples “not really trying to limit their guest count or do a socially distant, mask-wearing wedding.”
Wiley, 31, said she is immunocompromised with lupus, and she’d fear for her health if she attended a large wedding where coronavirus restrictions weren’t taken seriously.
“Large gatherings are like a super-spreader,” Wiley said. “So, I don’t want to be part of it.”
As coronavirus restrictions across the region have loosened, couples have thrown lavish celebrations, sometimes including more than 100 guests. All the while, Maryland’s contact tracing data has shown that the vast majority of infected individuals attended family gatherings, house parties or outdoor events.
For some couples, eased restrictions have allowed close-to-normal wedding plans to proceed apace. But other couples have opted for small ceremonies, elopements or postponements.
Meanwhile, concerned Marylanders — some of them in the wedding business — worry that current rules do little to keep weddings in check. The regulatory landscape has put couples, guests, vendors and venues in a sticky situation, as they decide whether to throw or attend large weddings that are legally permissible but remain concerning because of COVID-19′s potential spread.
Guidance from the state encourages outdoor weddings and receptions and places no blanket restrictions on them. Indoor weddings face capacity restrictions based on where they’re held; attendance in a church, for instance, would be capped at 50% capacity. Gov. Larry Hogan’s office did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.
“I don’t think it’s safe to do events in 2020,” said Daniel Horwitz, owner of The Pantry, a small Baltimore-based catering business. “We’re not doing an event where you can walk around and socialize. We’re not having passed hors d’oeuvres.”
After seeing big weddings take place this year, wedding photographers Marlayna Demond and Britney Clause have been calling and emailing representatives in Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties and the governor’s office, lobbying for more specific restrictions.
Indoor gatherings should be capped at 50 people or 50% capacity, whichever is lower, they say, and indoor dance floors ought to be prohibited. Clear restrictions would also help couples plan, they added.
“For couples, I imagine they’re trying to plan and every two weeks it feels like it’s something different,” Demond said. “The way that the executive orders have come out tries to keep it really broad and vague and probably makes people feel like there’s hope, and that it is OK to be planning these larger days.”
When the drinks start flowing and emotions run high, people are quick to forget social distancing and masks, the pair said.
“It’s been scary, honestly,” said Clause, “just to have to stick to the outside of the dance floor and worry that I’m not getting what my couples hired me for. And then, also, worrying about my own health and the health of all of the guests.”
The photographers said they don’t blame the couples, who are just trying to hold their special day amid a confusing tangle of regulations. Some have even been locked into nonrefundable contracts that make canceling or postponing prohibitively costly. Rather, lax government restrictions are to blame, they said.
In Anne Arundel County, for instance, officials capped indoor and outdoor gatherings July 23 — but explicitly exempted wedding receptions.
Even under Baltimore City’s recently lifted executive order, which prohibited indoor dining at bars and restaurants, hotels were allowed to serve dozens of guests in banquet halls and ballrooms — as long as they followed capacity restrictions and didn’t let guests serve themselves at a buffet. Only last week, with the city establishing a 25-person limit on gatherings, have larger weddings ground to a halt.
In city venues with multiple event spaces, the occupancy limit applies separately to each space, as long as the collective occupancy does not exceed 25%, according to a Friday news release.
Baltimore’s change comes as public health officials, including Dr. Deborah Birx, head of President Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, have expressed concern about a climbing case count in the city. The city’s testing positivity rate is higher than the state average. Nearly 2 out of every 100 city residents have been infected, the data shows.
With 50% capacity restrictions, the ballrooms at Baltimore’s Four Seasons Hotel could fit up to 120 people, said Melinda Redling, director of catering and conference services. Couples had been getting married on the hotel’s fourth-floor balcony, Redling said.
“We’ve been conducting wedding ceremonies out there for up to about 50 people,” Redling said. “And then everyone is coming inside and having a seated, plated dinner in one of our harbor view rooms.”
The hotel has hosted about 10 weddings this spring and summer, Redling said, and has bookings for most weekends in October, November and December. But those plans could change because of the latest executive order from the city.
“It just keeps going back and forth,” Redling said. “We’re just trying to follow the bouncing ball.”
Ashley Smoley and her husband, Kevin, got married at the Eagle’s Nest Country Club in Baltimore County on July 17. The party favors were mini bottles of hand sanitizer. The bride, groom and wedding party all wore themed masks. Dozens of people were uninvited to cut the guest list down to around 80 people.
Guests wore masks inside when they weren’t eating or drinking, Smoley said, but masks weren’t required outdoors, where guests were told to maintain social distancing. It’s been more than two weeks, and no one from the wedding has tested positive for COVID-19, Smoley said.
“I know there are some people that have backlash about planning weddings during COVID, but they aren’t in a bride’s shoes,” said Smoley, 30, a library media specialist for Baltimore County Public Schools.
Kaylee Zielinski, 32, of Baltimore, said she’s planning an outdoor wedding in White Hall with 80 to 90 guests in October. Zielinski emphasized that she wants invitees to do whatever they’re comfortable with.
“I just want to be married at this point,” she said.
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Still, some venues in the region, including the National Aquarium and the Enoch Pratt Free Library downtown, aren’t hosting weddings at all. The Lord Baltimore Hotel, another popular venue, is a coronavirus triage center for the city and isn’t hosting any events.
Plenty of others are debuting special “micro-wedding” packages for a small number of guests.
Meanwhile, at some of the area’s most popular venues, 2021 wedding dates are getting harder to come by.
“The word has gotten out that 2021 is going to be basically two years of weddings in one,” said Katey Clark, co-founder of Lemon and Lime Event Design, a Towson-based wedding planning firm.
In the meantime, wedding vendors have been helping couples plan small celebrations in backyards, parks and courthouses alike.
Jessica Reinstein planned to marry her fiance, Benjamin Garner, at the Maryland Science Center in May. Though the museum would have allowed them to hold the ceremony in the fall, the couple postponed until next year. This summer, they’ll marry at Patterson Park near the pagoda, with just a few friends and family members. Then, they’ll head to Bmore Licks for ice cream, Reinstein said.
“The biggest fear really is if it was traced back and somebody got COVID because of our wedding,” Reinstein said. “That’s not something we would ever feel comfortable with.”