Tim Ebner and his fiancée spent the past year-and-a-half excitedly planning their wedding, but when they saw reports about the rapid spread of coronavirus earlier this winter, they began to worry. Many of their guests are flying in from outside DC and outside the country for the ceremony, which was set for March 28, and some began reaching out with concerns.
“You put in all this time and effort, and it’s just kind of heartbreaking when you get to a point where it’s almost beyond your control,” says Ebner, “and you just have to wait and deal with the cards that [the circumstances] might play.”
In the meantime, the 33-year-old communications director says he and his fiancée began drafting a contingency plan. With the help of their wedding planner, the couple contacted the vendors they’d been working with to feel out their options, including possibly consolidating the ceremony and reception into one space to limit guests’ day-of travel. He also spent hours on the phone with Air Canada in an effort to change their non-refundable tickets to Tokyo, Japan, where they were planning to spend part of their honeymoon, only to be left on hold or hung up on. On Tuesday, he began writing an email to their 200 guests asking “very bluntly” whether or not they’re still coming. He needs to let their venue, City Winery, know an official headcount by next week.
Luckily, Ebner says, most of the agreements he’s made with vendors have been fairly flexible, and he found an insurance policy through RVNA that will cover them in the event that he, his fiancée, or one of their immediate family members gets sick. Some businesses, though, have already taken a hit.
After the State Department warned Americans not to take cruises last weekend, Bowie-based event planner Kawania Wooten says she canceled a wedding set to take place on a Royal Caribbean, after her clients and their guests became concerned for their safety. Wooten, whose company Howerton+Wooten also plans corporate events, says a nonprofit conference set for next month, which brings in her second-largest annual revenue, has also cancelled, though the organizers are hoping to postpone. She stands to lose $35,000. “I have a risk-management plan for every event,” says Wooten. “That’s the kind of girl I am. But it’s never covered infectious diseases.”
Wooten has tried to get ahead of the problem by calling vendors and informing her clients of any potential problems, from wedding dress deliveries to getting ahold of floral rental items, many of which come from China, where the virus has disrupted shipping.
Margot Jones, who owns Purple Onion Catering, says she has seen a slew of cancellations this week, and has laid off 20 of her 48 staffers as a result. “I’m also considering closing for next week since we don’t have business,” says Jones. “We’ll see.” She hasn’t laid off any members of her sales team, though, and she hopes that will help her rebuild the company when business picks up again.
For couples, canceling can mean huge costs and fees. Michael Giusti, a writer who covers insurance policies for the site, insuranceQuotes.com, says the option to purchase pandemic-related coverage is still relatively niche, and most people don’t choose to buy it. “There’s going to be some payout,” says Giusti. “But most people did not get that layer of cancellation [coverage] due to pandemics. And so, this is going to cost them.”
The insurance is also tricky to navigate. One woman in Bethesda whose daughter is getting married over Labor Day weekend says six of the seven event insurance companies she researched did not say on their websites whether they covered coronavirus-related cancelations or not, though she eventually found one that does.
Giusti says that kind of coverage is typically expensive, but varies in price as policies are tailored to a customer’s needs. Some companies also require that you notify them within a certain period of time after learning of the pandemic, so it’s best to discuss your options with your insurance agent. But like Ebner’s policy that only kicked in should he or his fiancée get sick, most companies will not cover precautionary cancellations. Still, by Thursday evening, Ebner and his fiancée had decided to officially postpone the wedding until July.
For her part, Wooten and her team are re-working their crisis-management plans to include outbreaks like coronavirus, but she’s concerned about its ripple effect. “For me, as the business owner, it hurts,” she says. “But what I’m so concerned about are the waitstaff, the caterer, the kitchen staff, the seamstress, all those people who support our industry who are not getting paid because of this.”