Shaida Whitley’s spring wedding was perfectly planned.
She had always wanted a traditional ceremony at her childhood church in Miami, followed by a reception with 180 guests, give or take. Every detail was carefully considered: garden-inspired decor with an assortment of white hydrangeas on each table, live music at the ceremony and a DJ at the party, plus a photo booth.
For Whitley and other 2020 brides and grooms, the pandemic has challenged the notion of such traditional weddings. The new era of social distancing, strict sanitation practices and mandated masks prompted an unexpected pivot in priorities for many people, and a collective reconsideration of what getting married really means.
As the coronavirus took hold of the country in mid-March, large weddings and other events came to a sudden halt. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as local governments, advised Americans against gathering in groups.
Whitley was crushed.
“I was so looking forward to the wedding,” she said.
Whitley, 28, and her now-husband, Micah Whitley, 32, decided to elope on the day they had originally planned to get married: May 3.
The couple had an intimate ceremony on a remote field at the school where Micah teaches, with only their respective families — totaling 10 people, including the bride and groom — in attendance.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” said Shaida, who wore a $100 dress from TJ Maxx, since her original gown was still being altered. “It was a dream.”
Following the last-minute ceremony, the compact wedding party went to Shaida’s parents’ backyard, where they held an impromptu reception, complete with a father-daughter dance.
The elopement alone would have satisfied the newlyweds, they said.
But a year from now, the Whitleys say they will have a party for family and friends to celebrate their marriage, since the couple has already paid for the majority of the wedding. Canceling the event, they said, would mean losing an exorbitant sum of money.
“It seemed very wasteful to cancel it altogether,” said Whitley. “Though I would have been completely happy with just the elopement.”
Having an intimate wedding made Whitley realize the underrated sentimentality of a small, spontaneous ceremony — an idea she had never previously considered.
“I have so many memories from our intimate ceremony,” said Whitley.
Genesis Marsandi, 26, married her high school sweetheart Matthew Marsandi, 26, in their Maryland backyard on May 21.
Genesis had initially planned for a large, traditional wedding with 200 guests. She had arranged for a romantic waterfront ceremony at Chesapeake Bay and an elegant reception with a large dance floor, a cocktail and lounge area, as well as french fry and pretzel stations.
Instead, the couple said “I do” in front of only their immediate families, and Genesis’s father officiated the ceremony.
“Having my dad marry us was so special,” she said, adding that it never would have happened if their wedding went as originally planned.
“The big party, the dress and the flowers are all beautiful, but the day is really just supposed to be about you and your significant other,” she added. “Everything else just doesn’t mean as much.”
Like the Whitleys, the Marsandis had already paid in advance for the majority of their event and are having a first anniversary celebration in 2021, if conditions allow for it.
In hindsight though, Genesis says “we could have done something smaller and more intimate from the start.”
Kristen Guthrie, 32, and her wife Nicole Guthrie, 35, also said their pandemic elopement made them rethink their original wedding plans.
The women, who live in Omaha, have been together for eight years and got engaged in 2015. Last year, they finally decided on a date.
“We had originally planned to get married in the Flint Hills, which is a beautiful landscape in Kansas, with 50 people,” said Kristen.
After several failed attempts at postponing and rejigging their plans to adhere to changing coronavirus protocols, the couple opted for a makeshift wedding in a friend’s backyard on June 20.
“It was basically plan D,” said Kristen. “But it could not have been more perfect.”
In attendance was their friend, who officiated the ceremony, and her husband, plus another close friend who witnessed the nuptials via Zoom.
In true elopement-style, the brides didn’t tell any of their family members or other friends about the wedding until after the ceremony.
“We didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings,” said Kristen. “But at the end of the day, this was our ideal wedding. All of the pandemic obstacles led us to our perfect ceremony, and we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
As some couples across the country participated in virtual courthouse ceremonies, parking lot drive-through weddings, front lawn shindigs and various nontraditional celebrations, other couples continue to wait for the wedding they wished for.
Julie Jaster, 22, and her fiance decided to postpone their wedding to next August, a year from their original date, unwilling to forgo their plans.
“We talked about eloping,” she said, “but in the end, we really want a traditional wedding and we’re willing to wait for it.”
Jaster, currently based in Virginia Beach, said she’d regret not having the big wedding of her dreams.
“I’m a patient person and we really want our parents, family and friends there,” she said.
Jaster is not alone: Sristi Chanda, 25, feels the same way. She and her fiance saved up for two years before officially planning their wedding, which was booked for June 14.
“We planned our perfect day to the detail,” said Chanda, who added that as an interracial couple, marking their marriage as they planned is very significant to them. “Our families and friends were set to fly in from all over the world to be there for us and now we have no idea what will happen.”
The couple, who live in San Bernardino, Calif., postponed the event to April 2021, but they’re concerned that it could get canceled again.
As states reopen, coronavirus is continuing to ravage the U.S., with record-breaking case counts in recent weeks. There’s no telling when the pandemic will ultimately subside, and what the weddings of the future might look like. Until then, engaged couples are living in matrimonial limbo.
“There has definitely been a change in the industry, and it’s a change that will probably be here to stay for some time to come,” said Tiffany Rivera, a Washington, D.C., wedding planner.
“There is still so much uncertainty even our 2021 brides are concerned about their weddings,” said Stephanie Sadowski, another events planner in D.C. “But I don’t think big lavish weddings are going away by any means. People want dancing and sparklers and the big day they had been dreaming of since they were little.”
That’s the case for Sarina Rios, 28, whose wedding is set for Nov. 7 in Edinburg, Texas.
“The idea of a big wedding is really important to me,” she said. But above all, Rios just wants to be married.
“We are absolutely getting married in November, regardless of what is happening in the world,” she said. “It’s really just a matter of whether we elope or have a small ceremony.”
For now, as with so many other couples, it remains a waiting game.