Note: This story was updated April 20, 2020.
Part One: The Couple
In late March, Kim Cirrito and Jim Dietz’s wedding looked much different than the one they had in mind. As they stood outside their apartment in Long Island City, their celebrant officiated from the safety of her car, and then through the window, passed a marriage license for them to sign (while wearing gloves, of course). Cirrito’s parents, who were “parked” at their wedding as well, drove from Long Island to act as their witnesses. This formality is no longer necessary now that New York has officially sanctioned officiants to legally marry people on virtual meeting services like Zoom. But at the time it allowed the couple, both 32, to make their marriage official on April 4, the date they originally planned to marry. Only instead of being surrounded by a hundred of their closest friends and family at The Foundry, an industrial venue in their neighborhood near the East River, they instead streamed their ceremony on YouTube.
As thousands of weddings are being canceled by the coronavirus, some couples are simply postponing their nuptials, but others are choosing to both gather in person at a later, safer time, while still having a virtual wedding on their pre-pandemic date. It’s a way of taking power over a situation that has left us all feeling paralyzed. “Nothing can stop us, that’s the way I look at it,” explained Dietz. “Once we make a decision, we’re going to follow through, and no matter hell or high water, we’re going to make it happen because that’s what we want to do with our lives.”
In some ways, they are more fortunate than the couples who spent a year or more planning a March or April (or maybe even a May or June) wedding. Dietz, a scientist at a cancer hospital, and Cirrito, who works in ecommerce, got engaged in December following their five-year anniversary. They went to an open house at The Foundry in February and quickly decided that they wanted to get married there. They liked the idea of April 4, and personally called or texted everyone on their guest list to make sure the date worked; it did. Within a week and a half, they’d lined up everything and gave their vendors their deposits. The weekend of Feburary 23, they visited Jim’s parents in South Carolina to celebrate the fact that the wedding was set. “The weekend that we go out to see my parents…was the weekend that we realized that something else was going on in the world,” he said.
As the date approached, the restrictions on gatherings went from no more than 50 people, to no more than 10. The nervous calls and texts from family and friends flying in for the wedding increased, and the guest count started to drop. Finally, the couple couldn’t bear any more uncertainty, and moved their in-person wedding date to December 5, a day after their anniversary.
“You know, we’ve only been going through this for a short amount of time with the planning, but to go through a whole year and half or sometimes even two years and then to come to the date and know you can’t have it… My heart breaks for them,” said Cirrito.
When asked if they were nervous about a second wave of the coronavirus changing their wedding plans yet again in December, they shrugged it aside as a problem they will deal with later. “It’s all a mystery what’s going to happen further down the road, and it’s given us a little bit of hope…Some days you just need that little light at the end of the tunnel just to get you through. And even though it’s a really dark time, just to have something out in the distance, just something to look forward to, it makes a huge difference,” said Dietz.
There is another silver lining for the couple. By being able to have their virtual ceremony at home, they’ll be able to share the moment with their dog Louie, a puggle “who is everything to us,” said Cirrito.
Inviting him to their Foundry wedding wasn’t an option. “We love him to death but he is not good in big crowds,” said Dietz. “We traveled in a van for two months across the US with him in the car…so he goes everywhere with us and loves us too much. And so to have him at the wedding [is] going to be a very nice bonus in my book.”
Part Two: The Photographer
Before we got off the phone I asked if Jim and Kim had any engagement photos they could send me. But the date for their engagement shoot with their photographer David Perlman was the weekend that the shelter in place restrictions were announced for New York.
Like every other wedding professional right now, Perlman has become used to cancellations and rebookings. So far, the Manhattan-based photographer has had to reschedule eight weddings, with the prospect of having to find new dates for at least six more. One couple that was set to be married on March 21 did something similar to Jim and Kim, moving their new date to the fall but officially marrying each other on the day that they had planned two years ago, in a small ceremony in Battery Park.
“They found a rabbi willing to marry them six feet away and they had two to three friends within walking distance and who could hold up their devices so their friends could watch virtually,” Perlman said.
It wasn’t that it would be too depressing, after years of coordinating, not to get married on the originally planned date. The possibility of illness loomed large for them. “They were like, ‘What if something happens? What if we have to go to the hospital? I want to have my legal rights.’”
The men are saving their vows, though, for their new wedding date this November at The Roundhouse in Beacon.
“When these [rescheduled] weddings do happen,” Perlman says, “they’re going to be that much sweeter and more magical. Like I can only just imagine the first wedding back, after all this is over—it’s just going to be that much more special and joyful and emotional than it would have been before.”
Like many wedding vendors and venues, Perlman is allowing couples to transfer their retainer, or deposit, to another open date free of charge. (Refunds, if provided by the vendor, are often on a case-by-case basis and usually reserved for cancellations only.) Many of Perlman’s couples have chosen to push their new dates to later this year, but for those who want or need the extra time, Perlman has opened up his calendar for free rebookings through roughly April 2021, balancing his desire to accommodate his current couples with the need to keep his prime wedding weekends next year open for new clients. His policy is not set in stone, though.
“On the one hand, I really feel for these couples, they’ve been planning these weddings for a year or two and I’ve been with them every step of the way, so when things are looking so uncertain and they’re looking at rescheduling, it’s an emotional thing, so I want to be there for them. What I’ve been doing and what a lot of wedding vendors have been doing is being easy—waiving rescheduling fees and finding a new date we can all do, for the most part. Because while our hearts want to take care of them, I also have a business that has to run and survive and there’s that side of it, too.”
As a sole business owner who has an emergency fund saved, he believes he’ll be able to survive the downturn, provided he is able to book enough new weddings to balance out honoring the old ones.
“I’m fortunate to be in a position where…I’m going to be okay for a little bit. I know that a lot of people in our industry are really going to be hurting from this. I’m just a solo photographer, but I do know that a lot of other people that I’ve spoken to, like caterers and planners who have bigger companies, they’ve had to lay people off. And that’s a scary thing.”
Part Three: The Caterer
“Kim and Jim were/are really focused on the idea of bringing everyone together,” said Heather Levine, a planner at Naturally Delicious, the Brooklyn caterer the couple chose to serve a family-style meal at their wedding. “The reason why they loved the main space of The Foundry and family-style [service] is that you are able to sit in a communal setting and be together as one big family.”
Levine is part of a much smaller team at Naturally Delicious since the coronavirus outbreak shut down New York. Following the weekend of March 14, the date of the last wedding and bat mitzvah the company catered before the lockdown, owner Loren Michelle arrived at the difficult decision that she couldn’t keep the business going without downsizing immediately.
“As a business owner…it’s already hard enough when you have to lay somebody off or fire somebody because of cause or because of a financial situation or something that’s not working in the business. That’s already difficult doing that with one person. But doing it with 10 people…that was really hard.”
Now she is operating with a key, bare-bones team who is working part-time from home, not the kitchen. “The most devastating thing is really closing the kitchen,” she said.
Naturally Delicious began in 1997 as a dinner delivery service, a novel idea at the time. As much as Michelle enjoyed it and as well-received as it was locally and in The New York Times, it was difficult to turn a profit. So she pivoted to catering weddings. [Full disclosure: Her company participates in the Brooklyn Based event Wedding Crashers]. Knowing the financial realities of prepared food delivery isn’t the only reason she was reluctant to go back to it during the coronavirus. “Number one is that I didn’t want to jeopardize the health and safety of my employees by bringing them in during this process.”
Without any catering income, she is instead selling out the shelves of her pantry in the form of a weekly “Provisions” curbside delivery/pickup service. Each week’s box includes a mix of staples like grains, beans and cheese or happy hour supplies like wine, beer and olives until she sells out her reserves.
“This money that we’re making is not any kind of net,” she said. “It’s basically to pay our operating expenses and to pay our payroll until we get our loans.”
Michelle has pulled all the levers available to her: working with her landlord to waive rent for a few months, her bank to waive the interest on her debt, but the key to making it through the next few months without weddings is being able to access a line of credit. “I know a lot of business owners that are not set up with credit,” she said, which can mean the difference between riding out the pandemic or closing for good.
It’s not just paying a large staff that makes caterers so exposed during the pandemic. It’s the razor thin margins of food. A wedding venue like The Foundry, for instance, can run a tight operation with a couple of employees and lean upon a small business loan to carry them through the standstill.
The overhead for caterers is much larger, and to help cope with the fallout, many are consulting one another. “I think the one thing that’s really been amazing for me is I’ve been on the phone with so many caterers that I would normally not have conversations with. And we’re all connecting and supporting each other. So I think that’s really beautiful that in an industry of competition, at this time we’re leaving all of that on the wayside and we’re like, ‘Okay how are you doing? What do you need?’”
Caterers are not the only food business hurt badly by the coronavirus, of course. Restaurants all over New York are shuttering. But the recovery period for the two industries will not look the same, Michelle pointed out. “Catering is very different than a restaurant. Restaurants are like a happy place. And so is catering… but right now I just feel like restaurants are a different animal. Like sure you’re gonna go with people, but you’re only going with two people instead of planning something for 100 or 150 people flying all over the country. I think people are still going to be on the fence about things…I mean I’m optimistic that they’re going to be like, ‘Okay I’ve been in quarantine for 30 days and I’m ready to drink some champagne already!’”
But for those who are wary of gathering in large groups once the quarantine lifts, Naturally Delicious has another lever it can pull: a private dining room and a backyard set up for small celebrations for 10 or fewer. “I would love for that to be a placeholder for an intimate gathering,” Michelle said.
It is still too early to plan these kinds of events without knowing when it will be okay to cater a dinner of any kind. So for now the company is focusing on what’s most important.
“For the last two weeks, all we’ve been doing is connecting with our clients and checking in with them to see how they’re doing, what they need, how they’re feeling. You know, this is a human thing. This is not about business anymore. This is about how’s everyone doing.”