Tying the knot — or not: coronavirus leaves couples, businesses reeling
The Corinthian Grand Ballroom set up for a reception. Image courtesy of Corinthian Grand Ballroom/Christa Mekki

Everything was in motion for Afsha Wasi’s April 19 wedding, part of a three-day affair in Fremont that would kick off a new chapter of her life in Chicago, half a country away from her hometown of San Jose.

Then the coronavirus hit the Bay Area, events were canceled and it all ground to a halt.

“We had to really think of Plan B, and I was trying to be as optimistic as possible,” Wasi said. “There’s literally people dying and I can’t be upset about a celebration and a party.”

Wasi let herself have one good cry about it all. But to be fair, those emotions were part wedding stress, part concern for older family members and sadness that she wouldn’t get to say goodbye to her students at ACE Charter High School in person.

The contagious coronavirus has made its way across the globe, first recorded in the United States in January. By March 17, Bay Area health officials issued a shelter-in-place order that shuttered businesses and schools to slow the spread of the virus, which can cause a deadly respiratory illness called COVID-19.

As of Monday, 1,666 people had tested positive for the virus in Santa Clara County and 60 had died from the disease. The shelter-in-place order is in effect until May 3.

Afsha Wasi and her fiance Ahsan pose for their engagement photos. Photo courtesy of Afsha Wasi

But before COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic, Wasi spent about $10,000 on deposits and other expenses for the big day. She’d traveled to Pakistan to buy her dress and her friends had thrown her a bachelorette party.

Wasi’s boss knew she’d depart from her role as an American history teacher before the end of the school year and she’d applied for jobs in the Windy City.

Now the chaos of wedding planning and preparing to move across the country has turned to uncertainty. The silver lining is that she’ll finish the school year because her wedding has been pushed back to July 31. Wasi hopes that’s late enough for the virus to dissipate, though she’s bracing for the possibility of having to make a Plan C.

“We haven’t even sent the save the dates because … I’m not going to send it out until after it’s OK for us to go out,” she said. “For now I’m just using Zola, the website, to make announcements.”

Wasi isn’t alone navigating the unknown territory of a new, fast-spreading virus paired with planning a wedding. Each year, about 2.2 million couples tie the knot in the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The nearly $74 billion industry supports more than 400,000 businesses and 1.2 million jobs across the country, and those business owners and workers are feeling the effects alongside the couples left in limbo.

Forging ahead

Christa Mekki has felt the effects two-fold. She’s the general manager at two popular venues, The Glass House and Corinthian Grand Ballroom in San Jose, and runs her own events planning business, called Magnetic Magnificent Events.

At least 50 events have been canceled or postponed at the Glass House and Corinthian Grand Ballroom, she said. The cancellations started with corporate events, followed by canceled proms. Now couples are postponing or calling off weddings.

“I couldn’t really quote the amount of money lost, but … if I had to guess, it would probably be at least $100,000 in the last 45 days,” Mekki said. “It’s huge.”

Employees who normally worked those celebrations have been laid off, and the few left to reschedule and book events for later in the year are working part-time. Mekki said the company is being flexible on date changes and holding customers’ deposits for a year without a penalty. Some couples have asked for a full refund of their normally non-refundable deposit, and the company is figuring out how to manage those requests while also staying afloat.

Glass House owner Gene Campbell and General Manager Christa Mekki pose for a photo at the Glass House. Image Courtesy of Christa Mekki

Most venues have preferred vendors or in-house catering, and that’s true for The Glass House and the Corinthian Grand Ballroom. But couples who can’t find a later date at their original venues have asked other locales to allow outside caterers. That’s something Mekki’s boss will have to consider.

Meanwhile, Mekki has also been working with anxious couples looking for guidance from their wedding coordinator. Her message is to stay positive, pick a date later in the year and keep pushing forward. Even so, one couple she worked with found it all too stressful and canceled their wedding.

But even as she attempts to forge ahead, Mekki said the coronavirus has changed how she — and likely others — will scrutinize contracts in the future.

“It’s going to be one of those things that’s now going to be in the conversations so that everybody can be reassured going into it that there is a postponement, or there’s a refund, or whatever it may be,” she said.

The strain on small business

For Amanda Aude, 2020 was set to be a breakout year for her business, Shutter Pine Photography, which she launched last year in San Jose.

The first email to postpone an event came about two weeks ago and she’s anxiously waiting to see how far into wedding season the virus will persist. Aude estimates she’ll see thousands of dollars in lost income this year.

“What I’m most disappointed in is just the fact that my business was really starting to take off,” Aude said. “I’ve only done this for a year and I already had all these weddings to look forward to and I just revamped my website.”

Like Aude, Anthony Lunardini was looking forward to his best year yet for his company, DJ Stallion Entertainment, a one-man professional DJ company. At the start of the year, he’d booked 70 events and projected he’d surpass 150 jobs before the end of 2020.

As of April 9, at least 20 of those had canceled or postponed, costing or delaying about $20,000 in revenue. Each month events remain prohibited will cost Lunardini at least $10,000, he estimated. In the meantime, he’s considering picking up temporary work and hoping to make up some of the lost income later in the year.

“I’m just trying to keep it running, I’m not going to slow down,” he said. “Businesses are closed down, … but I just booked one for 2021, so maybe … I can book all my November, December and my October (events) right now, and then I’m good.”

Lunardini has experimented with virtual DJing, but said that’s not a service that’s likely to take off.

But some industries that rely on events have found a new niche during the pandemic.

Tony Santos is the chef and owner of San Jose-based Tony Caters, which manages the cafe at the Tech Museum in San Jose, though the company makes much of its income on events.

Tony Santos is the chef and owner of San Jose-based Tony Caters. Image courtesy of Tony Caters

When events were canceled and the Tech Museum shuttered overnight, Santos launched Tony’s To-Go, which offers $12 to $15 meals packaged individually, and marketed to first responders and hospitals.

So far, he’s created partnerships with Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley, a Kaiser Permanente emergency room and most recently, a local marijuana dispensary, where drivers are so busy the company decided to cater food.

That has helped keep Santos going, but it’s not as profitable as the 49 events that have been canceled or postponed between March and August, he said. The proms that were canceled in May account for about $100,000 in revenue alone, Santos said.

Tony Caters has furloughed some staff and cut hours and pay for others. Santos said he’s brought people back as Tony’s To Go grows to offer employees “a sense of purpose and normalcy,” during the shutdown. He’s holding customers’ deposits for a future event with no date-change cost, and offering refunds when he can.

“We’re just really trying to balance what’s smart for business with our heart,” Santos said.

He’s hopeful he can continue to stay open until business can return to normal, but how long that will be is unclear. California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday told residents to expect to remain sheltered in place for at least a couple more weeks and that normalcy will return to the state gradually.

In the meantime, Wasi said she’s been lucky to have vendors that have been flexible in rescheduling and holding her deposits without a fee. Now the question is: what if her Plan B wedding date doesn’t work out?

“What we’ll probably just do is … just go to City Hall and it is what it is,” she said. “Of course, every girl wants their dream wedding, but I care more about being with him than a celebration.”

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story reported Wasi worked at a different charter school in San Jose. She works at ACE Charter High School. 

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