I'm a storyteller who believes life is made up of the little moments and that the best photographs look for the in-between
This article was last updated for the Blue Ridge area of Virginia on May 21 and may not reflect the situation in your immediate vicinity after that date.
Let me preface this by saying if you’re reading this because you are having to make hard decisions about your 2020 wedding – I am so sorry. Please, don’t hesitate to reach out. I will do whatever I can to help you. I know this is a super stressful time.
This article is intended to help you navigate getting married in a coronavirus world. It’s not medical advice, but it is based on readily available research, restrictions and advisories.
It should also be noted that I take the coronavirus pandemic very seriously. It’s not a hoax or part of a conspiracy. Period.
There are a couple photographers I follow on social media who have been doing business as usual throughout all of this. Doing that is frankly irresponsible. People are dying from this disease. And from my perspective, following public health guidelines isn’t about me. It’s about my community and protecting my community. So for a couple weeks I completely took a break from shooting until we knew more about this disease.
But as this thing goes on, it has become clear that coronavirus is not going away anytime soon. In fact, I believe the world going forward is going to look different than the one we had even last year. “Normal” is going to be something new. And until we have a widespread vaccine, which could take years to develop and implement – or accurate, quick ways of determining who is carrying the coronavirus and who has immunity from it – we have to adapt to living with it.
And that means continuing to get married and celebrate those marriages. But having a 200-person wedding probably isn’t a good idea – for a long time. So enter micro or intimate weddings – your ticket to still having a great celebration…with fewer people.
Canceling Your Traditional Wedding
This is the big question for couples in 2020. Should I cancel or postpone my wedding and elope instead? I love elopements, so if that’s what you choose to go with, I’m totally there for you. But if that wasn’t your dream, I’d encourage you not to cancel, even if it means shifting your plans a little bit.
As far as I see it, 2020 couples have three main options:
– Postpone to a later date
– Elope on their original date and postpone the reception to a later date
– Change to an intimate wedding
Let’s walk through all of these.
Postponing Your Wedding Due to Coronavirus
A lot of people are choosing to do this with the hope they’ll be able to have their original celebration – just a year later. And, man, I hope that’s true. But I have my doubts. Many experts are saying we in the U.S. are at risk of a second surge of cases in the fall or winter. A second surge could shut the country again. And if that happens, officials are likely going to be slower to reopen things again.
So here are a couple things to consider when deciding to postpone your wedding…
– Country may be back to “normal” and you can have the original celebration you planned
– More time to plan or save
– Less stress of trying to get married during the height of a pandemic
– Could be expensive – rescheduling to a new year often involves additional payment to vendors
– New date may not be available for all your vendors
– No guarantee the country will actually be open to big gatherings in a year
There is no “right” answer – it just depends on what you are comfortable with. Obviously, nobody can accurately predict what is going to happen in a year.
My personal plug is, please, consider not canceling completely. Change the date, change the format, but still get flowers and use your venue, eat the great food from your caterer and dance your heart out with all 20 of your guests. Not only will you and your loved ones enjoy celebrating, even if in a limited way, you’ll be benefiting those whose livelihood depends on services provided to wedding celebrations. I have many wedding-vendor friends who won’t survive if everyone moves their wedding to next year and they lose an entire year’s worth of income. (I’m lucky in that 2020 for me was already largely focused around intimate weddings and elopements so I haven’t been affected as much as many.) But, for the sake of my friends, my vote is for you to postpone or change, don’t cancel!
Eloping in Virginia
So you’ve decided to scrap the whole big wedding thing and elope, or you’re going to elope initially and do a big marriage celebration later.
Here’s what you need to know:
Eloping can be just two people, an officiant and photographer, but often that’s not the way it’s done. Most of my eloping couples have immediate family – up to about 12ish guests with them. This enables them to keep everything as simple and easy as possible. Such a small group can even retreat to their cars if they’re outdoors and it begins to rain. Or they can embrace it and do it all in the rain.
Once you get to the size of 15 or so people total, you are getting into intimate wedding territory, which requires a different level of planning and accommodation. For example, if it rains and you were planning on being outside, you’ll need to have back-up plans for handling your group of 15+ people. For intimate weddings, I encourage you to consider getting some kind of a venue for a home base – a VRBO, Airbnb, regular venue – whatever. The real point of eloping is for things to be relaxed and enjoyable – trying to navigate rain with no backup plan for 20 people is not either of those things. (For more on planning an intimate wedding, skip down to “Shifting to an Intimate or Micro Wedding.”)
But can you have guests at your elopement? Absolutely. Do you have to? Nope. Can you elope and have your reception later? Yep – people were doing this pre-coronavirus and it works beautifully.
Eloping in Virginia does have some unique challenges – especially if you are interested in an adventurous elopement on a mountaintop, which is my specialty. The biggest challenge is finding an officiant to hike with you. I decided – like last week – to seriously pursue certification as an officiant so I can be that person for my couples, but it looks like that will take awhile, so until then, you have a couple options:
– Get married at the courthouse (assuming the one in your locality is open) and then go up onto the mountain for your vows
– Find an officiant to hike with you
– Use a “virtual” officiant. It should be noted, the legality of virtual elopements is somewhat murky – as in it’s not addressed in Virginia code. But as far as I can tell, it is legal, simply because it’s not illegal. This article goes into that more in depth.
Many of my couples choose to elope in Shenandoah National Park or off the Blue Ridge Parkway – particularly at Raven’s Roost Overlook. But at the time of writing, both Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway mile marker 0-13 are closed, though SNP has posted these words, “We are working to increase access to the park in a phased approach.” Fortunately, there are a TON of other options in Virginia for epic places to get married. Currently almost all state parks in Virginia are open for day-use activities (most campgrounds are closed). For current conditions check here. And most of the Blue Ridge Parkway is open – you can check road closures for the parkway here. For National Park conditions in Virginia go here and for National Forests go here or here. Additionally this document from the Appalachian Trail Conservatory is super useful for considering AT access points.
Personally, I’d choose Grayson Highlands in Virginia or Dolly Sods in West Virginia.
Also, it’s worth noting if you opt to elope, check with your vendors to see if they could do an elopement package for you. Have an amazing meal for two, get married at the original ceremony spot, get a beautiful bouquet, wear the dress.
Shifting to an Intimate or Micro Wedding
For most people, I think this is the best option. Keep your date and your venue, your cake and your catering, just scale it down a bit to whatever your venue and current guidelines can accommodate.
Alternatively you can shift plans entirely but keep a small guest count. Many of the intimate weddings I photograph resemble elaborate dinner parties OR weekend getaways. When you have fewer people, you can afford a five-course meal for those people rather than a buffet or you can rent a giant VRBO where everyone can gather and have a relaxing getaway together.
If there are people who really want to be with you, but can’t due to age, health or travel limitations, consider streaming your ceremony for them via Facebook Live or Zoom.
And if things have improved next year to the point where you can have a big reception, plan on doing it as an anniversary gift to yourselves! Have an epic one-year-out party with a DJ and great food and all the booze you care to drink.
Postpone, Go Small, Elope – To Do or Not To Do?
Many of the couples who choose me as their photographer are non-traditional in some way. And there aren’t as many resources for them when they are planning their distinctively personal wedding. So one of the things I have found is super helpful to them, and may be helpful to you, is to make what I like to call “The List.”
Sit down with your partner and make a list of all the things you want your wedding day to include.
It might look something like this:
These key people
A great dance party or an adventure
Once you have your list, arrange it from most important to least important. Then begin to work out how to keep the elements you really want on your day. If your number one priority is to have a huge party where everyone can dance their hearts out, then postponing is probably your best bet. If you’re most excited about the food, then shift to an intimate dinner party. If you really just want epic photographs of you and your partner, then maybe an elopement is the way to go. But what the list does is it helps you clarify what you ACTUALLY want, versus what you are doing because you think that’s what you’re supposed to do. Once you have that clarity, choosing which road to go down becomes easier.
Keeping Your Guests (and Yourself) Safe
The contents of this paragraph (and article) are not intended to substitute for medical or official advice. Just saying. In other words, do your own research and don’t do anything stupid, but these tips are based on current recommendations from credentialed experts as of publication date.
If at all possible, keep everything outside. Risk of contracting the virus is much lower in outdoor settings.
Grandparents and elderly relatives should probably stay home and view the ceremony virtually. I know this is a tough one — we literally chose our venue and wedding date based around my grandmother (although almost four years ago now). But just consider if one of your loved ones got sick because they came to your wedding. Don’t do it!
Set chairs six feet apart at your ceremony or in immediate family clusters.
Provide handwashing stations and tons of hand sanitizer.
I’ve seen all this done recently on a mountainside near Charlottesville, Virginia, so I know it can work beautifully!
In conclusion, you can still get married and have a beautiful day – in fact, the weddings I have shot so far this year have been some of the most intentional lovely celebrations I have ever documented. Your day might look different than you imagined, but different isn’t bad – it’s just different. So sit down, make The List and craft a uniquely beautiful day you’ll never forget.