Weddings make a comeback in Georgia despite pandemic

50-person limit on public gatherings? Not necessarily.
Alex and Colin Ryan got married in August 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, in a small wedding in Decatur, Ga. with 20 guests. Credit: Mammoth Studio

Credit: Credit: Mammoth Studio

Credit: Credit: Mammoth Studio

Alex and Colin Ryan got married in August 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, in a small wedding in Decatur, Ga. with 20 guests. Credit: Mammoth Studio

The coronavirus can’t stop love. Or big weddings.

On the surface, Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order to keep people safe during the pandemic bans gatherings of more than 50 people.

And many Georgians have canceled, postponed or significantly scaled back their nuptials since March, worried about triggering a `super spreader' event among loved ones and possibly breaking the law.

But some couples are still taking the plunge with 100 or more guests in attendance.

That’s at least in part because the state’s 50-person rule is filled with enough loopholes that it not only allows you to tie the knot, but to drive a truck through it, even though you might not be able to dance.

Anna Daggs and Abel Wen are plowing ahead after sending out save-the-date notices in February and hitting the brakes in March. The Atlanta couple now plan to get married in November at the Cathedral of Christ the King and host a reception at Chateau Elan with just over 100 guests. The wedding party will have matching burgundy masks, with plenty of hand sanitizer for everyone.

“How do you take a moment and make it glass half-full?” said Wen. “We’ve been trying to make a little bit light of it.”

Not that there isn’t plenty of confusion among would-be spouses and even professional wedding planners about what’s safe or legal.

“A lot of it is interpretation,” said Lauren Hines, president of Atlanta Wedding and Event Professionals, an industry group, and founder of Hinesmark Affairs. There are businesses “that are still figuring this whole thing out.”

There is no shortage of aspiring couples. A national survey of 8,341 U.S. wedding professionals by The Knot and WeddingWire in May 2020 found that 59% of upcoming weddings had been postponed to later in 2020 or 2021, 25% were unchanged and only 15% had been canceled.

Kemp’s executive order limiting large gatherings comes with caveats: It does not apply if there is sufficient space that people can keep at least six feet distance, or if gatherings are “transitory or incidental.”

The governor’s office said compliance partly depends on how long groups of more than 50 people stay gathered. “If temporary, there is no issue,” according to Candice Broce, Kemp’s chief deputy executive counsel. Neither Broce nor the executive order defined what length of time qualifies as temporary or transitory.

That doesn’t make everyone comfortable.

Gillian Marto’s business, Events of a Lifetime Productions, has been helping couples rejigger their big day, but she said it’s frustrating because “we have no guidelines for our industry” from the state.

The Georgia Aquarium (file photo) (RICH ADDICKS/AJC staff)

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

The Georgia Aquarium, one of the larger venues in Atlanta, is hosting weddings and other events with new protocols. But it too is feeling its way.

The aquarium has room for as many as 500 people to space out six feet apart in its 16,400-square-foot Oceans Ballroom, but the largest wedding it has hosted since reopening in June is about 150 guests. Masks and temperature screening are required, while dance floors are off limits.

“We know we’re doing the right thing because we’re doing it safely, but it would be great to have guidance to stand behind from the governor,” said Will Ramsey, the aquarium’s vice president of sales.

The Georgia Municipal Association advises on its website that, based on Kemp’s order, it is permissible to host or attend a larger wedding "because it is not a Gathering.”

Other events like protests, church services, campaign events and funerals — including a service for U.S. Rep. John Lewis attended by hundreds at Ebenezer Baptist Church — have also proceeded while Georgia’s large gathering ban has been in place. So have high school and college football games, with fans in the stands.

One potential hurdle: dancing with anyone other than your spouse or kids.

At weddings, technically guests “who sit next to individuals other than cohabitants, or dance with non-cohabitants, violate the social distancing rule and could be warned and issued citations,” according to the state municipal association.

Dancing “is the tricky part,” acknowledged Marto, the event planner. Some weddings have the DJ designate a song for each table, with tables taking turns on the dance floor song by song, she said.

Compliance is up to state and local law enforcement. But a Georgia State Patrol spokesman said he was not aware of any weddings that have been cited, whether for breaking a ‘Footloose’-like rule against dancing or any other pandemic-related regulation.

“I think it’d be very difficult to enforce something at a wedding, to be honest,” said Rusi Patel, general counsel at the Georgia Municipal Association.

Other regulations can still get in the way. Some couples have canceled weddings because visitors from states like New York would have to quarantine when they return home, said Elena Edwards, director of the Golden Isles Wedding Association on St. Simons Island.

Wedding planners say more couples also are adopting outdoor sites, larger venues for distancing and other protocols to ensure safety.

At a recent wedding with about 140 guests at the Barnsley Resort in Adairsville, staff and attendees were tested for COVID-19 beforehand. Guests didn’t wear masks, but anyone who left was not allowed to return, in an effort to create a “bubble.”

The father of the bride who arranged for the testing was Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian. His daughter originally planned a wedding of about 300 guests for May, but then postponed it to the end of August and scaled back the guest list.

“It was a weekend-long activity and everybody felt like they were back in 2019,” Bastian said during a September talk at a travel industry virtual conference. “Nobody needed to wear masks. We had nights, we had bands. It was such a joyful experience.”

Still, he acknowledged, “it was a big wedding in a pandemic.” While making the toast at the reception, he added, “I shared with everybody it was actually harder to pull off a big wedding in a pandemic than even run an airline, maybe."

Delta said no COVID-19 infections were identified after the wedding. Barnsley Resort said it can accommodate weddings of up to 150 people in its 5,000-square-foot Georgian Hall, with outdoor and indoor venues.

Not everyone has that kind of space or financial wherewithal. But East Atlanta resident Alex Ryan got married in August at Cator Woolford Gardens in Decatur with 20 guests, after her earlier booking for a larger wedding on St. Simons was canceled when the resort canceled all events for the rest of the year.

“We basically had to start all over,” Ryan said. With the state ban on large gatherings in mind, she said she “didn’t want to have potentially 50 to 60 people there, because no one wants to be a headline where it says their wedding was linked to a bunch of cases.”

She plans to invite more people to an anniversary celebration next year, and to take the money saved from the smaller wedding for a down payment on a house.

Marto said her wedding-planning business puts together boxes to send to grandparents and others who won’t be attending clients’ weddings. Inside is information on a livestream of the event and party favors like Georgia pecans and a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Even with precautions in place, some families have asked guests not to post photos on social media. “They just don’t want to be shamed,” Marto said.

Anna Daggs and Abel Wen got engaged in Banff, Canada in January 2020 and plan to get married in Atlanta in November 2020. Credit: Kim Payant Photography

Credit: Kim Payant Photography

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Credit: Kim Payant Photography

Daggs, a client of Hines’ who is planning her November wedding, originally had a guest list of about 200 but now expects roughly half that after guests dropped off. The couple plans to livestream the event for family overseas.

The church can accommodate up to 100 people with seating in every other pew and distancing between families, a fraction of its normal capacity. Daggs and Wen may seek volunteers to skip the ceremony and attend only the reception, which will feature cornhole and Jenga games on the lawn instead of a dance floor.

“Even if it’s different, even if it’s unusual, we’re writing a new wedding playbook," Daggs said.

Ban on large gatherings in Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order

“[N}o business, establishment, corporation, non-profit corporation, organization, or county or municipal government shall allow Gatherings of persons. This provision shall not apply to cohabitating persons, family units, or roommates residing together in private homes, whether inside or outside their homes or place of residence. This provision shall also not apply to entities defined as ‘Critical Infrastructure.'"

"'Gathering' shall mean more than fifty (50) persons physically present at a Single Location, if, to be present, persons are required to stand or be seated within six (6) feet of any other persons. Therefore, groups of more than fifth (50) people are permitted if their grouping is transitory or incidental, or if their grouping is the result of being spread across more than one Single Location.

“'Single location' shall mean a space where all persons gathered cannot maintain at least six (6) feet of distance between themselves and any other person.”

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