The COVID-19 pandemic sent shockwaves through the wedding industry, leaving vendors scrambling to maintain their businesses.

This story first appeared in the fall/winter 2020 issue of Columbus Weddings, which published in August 2020.

It was the weekend of the Arnold Sports Festival, and Jan Kish knew that something was wrong.

The owner of Jan Kish-La Petite Fleur, a bakery in Worthington, had been hired by a New Hampshire couple who intended to get married at the annual fitness event. But in early March, days before the expo and accompanying wedding were set to take place, the Ohio Department of Health issued a directive to limit spectators—the first in a long list of coronavirus-prompted changes, cancellations and postponements throughout the city and state.

“The wedding went on, and it got beamed over 83 countries,” Kish says. “We went ahead and did the cake, but all of the spectators—all of that was shut down. I think they had like 20 people for their reception.”

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The news came as a disappointment, but things were about to get a whole lot stranger. Kish had been hired to create a cake for a wedding at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens the weekend following the sports festival. The guest list numbered 250, but when further orders restricting businesses and gatherings came from state officials, the event had to be scuttled.

“Friday, it gets shut down,” says Kish, who ended up serving the cake to guests at the couple’s hotel. “They had a brunch for about 40 people.”

During the early months of the coronavirus outbreak, Kish—like others in the Columbus wedding industry—was forced to confront a new reality in which countless ceremonies and receptions were reimagined or simply rescheduled. “It’s been devastating,” says Berlyn Martin, owner of Berlyn Events. “There are companies that were projecting millions of dollars in revenue that are now hoping to break $100,000 [this year].”

“In April, it started getting kind of real,” says Nicole Dixon of Nicole Dixon Photographic. “Things started to change for couples, whether they were deciding to go small-scale and move forward or postpone.”

Dixon photographed one wedding that was scaled down to include the couple and just three guests. “They had a ceremony and a first dance on a sidewalk,” says Dixon, who adds that the overwhelming majority of couples have simply kicked the can ahead in hopes of a post-coronavirus future.

In the meantime, an industry dependent on couples saying “I do” has had to brace for a long and likely challenging climb back.

For some businesses, that has meant supplementing the usual wedding work with side jobs. Kish has returned to her roots as a former restaurant owner by preparing gourmet food for pick-up service. “You’ve got to keep the boat afloat somehow,” Kish says. For her part, Dixon shifted from shooting weddings to photographing families and high school seniors.

Other businesses can’t adjust as easily, including the 13 to 17 DJs who regularly work wedding gigs with D&M DJ Entertainment. From mid-March to early June, wedding work essentially vanished. “I’ve rescheduled close to 80 weddings,” says owner David Kurtz, who remains concerned about the practicality of playing large events even as bookings return.

For some businesses, bookings just didn’t return quickly enough. One of the most in-demand venues in the region, Dock580, announced in June that it and sister rooftop restaurant/event venue Juniper would not be reopening. In a letter to clients, owner Steve Rayo cited the economic hardship of statewide shutdowns as the key factor leading to the venues’ closures.

“The event and hospitality industry as a whole has been decimated by the coronavirus,” Rayo wrote. “Our business was not spared ... the ongoing restrictions placed on our business as a result of the coronavirus cannot be overcome, and the losses that our business has sustained are too great. As hard as it is, all of our forecasts show that continuing with the business is simply not feasible.”

Vendors that have managed to muddle through have not done so without their own hardships. As a business dependent on in-person shopping, Worthington Jewelers is reckoning with how to serve brides and grooms during the pandemic. Since re-opening its doors in early May, the store has instituted new measures to ensure cleanliness. “If you want to even just get your ring sized, to take your ring in, we’ve got to first sanitize it,” says owner Bob Capace. “Then you try on the little sizing rings to get the right size, and then we’ve got to sanitize those.”

Capace laid off a majority of his staff of 12 during the pandemic but plans to bring all workers back. “Up to March 15, we were well beating our record year of last year,” he says. “The rest of March fell off significantly, and then April was just a horrible financial experience.” But Capace feels lucky to be providing what he considers an essential element of weddings, no matter how scaled-down they may become in the months ahead. “If my wedding was in June, maybe I just get married in my backyard,” he says. “I’m not doing my big shindig wedding with the cakes and the DJs and the flowers.”

Some members of the local wedding industry have raised concerns about long-term prospects of the industry. For example, Martin of Berlyn Events says that as couples reschedule ceremonies from 2020 to 2021, fewer dates remain available for newly engaged couples to get married in 2021. The industry is still coming to grips with the ripple effect. “When you think of what we sell, we sell available dates for our services,” says Martin, who spearheaded a Change.org petition asking Gov. Mike DeWine to form an advisory group to reopen the wedding/special event industry. “The dates that were eaten up by coronavirus, through no one’s fault, are gone.” Martin also founded Ohio Event Safety, which she describes as “a collective of like-minded professionals united with the focus of finding a reopening solution that is realistic, sustainable and safe.”

In April, Tanya Hartman, the owner of Gilded Social, a bridesmaid dress shop in Downtown Columbus, filed a lawsuit against Dr. Amy Acton, then the director of the Ohio Department of Health, arguing that businesses deemed nonessential should have the means to prove they could be run in a safe manner. “The last two weeks of March and into April, we had to cancel probably 40 appointments,” says Hartman, adding that the majority of couples who canceled have not yet rescheduled because their weddings won’t happen this year.

Although Gilded Social has opened back up as part of a larger wave of re-openings, Hartman describes a perilous few months and an uncertain future. “I just expanded my shop in November, and I just re-signed this lease in November—a brand-new lease that there was absolutely zero way to pay,” says Hartman, who, fearful of another shutdown if coronavirus cases spike again, has not dropped her legal action. “We need to ensure that we have an ability to appeal a decision when your business is shut down,” she says.

Dixon notes hesitancy among couples re-entering the wedding fold: As the photographer sees it, engaged couples are rescheduling warily, while couples who intend to get married as planned are proceeding with maximum caution. “I think there’s just that unknown of when things are going to change for the better,” Dixon says.

In spite of all of the uncertainty, industry leaders are sure that celebrations of the union of two people will survive in one form or another. “There will always be that want to have a party—to have a celebration with all of your friends,” Kish says. “I don’t see that changing.”