As Ohio reopens, wedding venues eager to help with big day

Eric Lagatta
elagatta@dispatch.com
Casandra (nee Horton) and Andrae Steward walk down the aisle following a small wedding ceremony May 10 at the Estate at New Albany. The couple were married by officiant Cornell E. Lewis in front of seven family members, the maximum number of people allowed in the venue during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. The couple plan to hold another larger ceremony and reception next March now that gathering restrictions have been eased.

Casandra and Andrae Steward wasted little time selecting a date and wedding venue after their January 2019 engagement.

By February, the Lithopolis couple had booked the Estate at New Albany for May 10, 2020, a date that took on an unexpected resonance when Horton realized it was not only Mother's Day, but she also was expecting her first child.

Yet amid all the spinning plates that come with preparing for a wedding that's months away -- accommodations for family members traveling from out of state, the food that's served, the music that's played -- there was no way the couple could have anticipated the arrival of a pandemic.

When the COVID-19 coronavirus was confirmed in the state, it wasn't long before wedding venues were forced to shutter and postpone large events under orders announced by Gov. Mike DeWine.

The couple found themselves in the same boat as other engaged couples in Ohio, facing the reality that their special day would not go forward as planned.

"It was quite a bit frustrating, but we really just tried to focus on the good and be grateful," said 38-year-old Casandra, whose maiden name is Horton. "The frustration subsided when we knew things were not in our control."

The couple made the decision to go forward with an intimate 10-person ceremony on their original date to exchange vows in front of immediate family, including their 7-month-old daughter, Ariana.

And now that banquet and catering halls have been allowed to reopen since June 1 for wedding receptions, the couple are planning to hold another ceremony and reception next March with the rest of their family and friends.

"As hectic as it was, it's kind of nice because we captured this moment," Andrae Steward, 41, said. "We got to share it with our closest family, and we'll get to do it again with everyone else."

Venues are able to accommodate weddings, receptions and other large events with up to 300 people, and they'll have to abide by a list of protocols similarly placed on restaurants: The events must include increased sanitation efforts and practice social distancing, with tables spaced at least 6 feet apart and no more than 10 people seated together.

As a managing partner of BTTS Holdings, which owns the Estate in New Albany, 5216 Forest Drive in New Albany, and two other event venues in central Ohio, John Brooks has worked with 50 industry professionals to craft a list of best practices available at ohioeventsafety.com.

The recommendations will help such places as the Estate -- which had 122 weddings canceled during the quarantine -- keep business alive as they continue to reschedule the weddings that were postponed from March through June. For many venues, that means reconfigured floor plans and the absence of cocktail hours and dance floors.

Most venues will require servers and other staff members to wear masks, but they are leaving it up to the bride and groom to decide whether guests must do so.

Brooks said the focus has been on finding what they can offer wedding parties in lieu of what they had lost. That could come in the form of increased table service or seating eight to a table so the bride and groom have room to visit with their guests one table at a time.

"How do we provide that experience that provides those memories without the mingling or the congregating?" Brooks said. "Let's focus on what they can do as opposed to what they can't do."

Although weddings are able to resume -- Brooks anticipates the season kicking into full gear in July -- some venues say many couples are looking to reschedule for the same month in 2021. And because many wedding venues are booked a year or more in advance, couples are having to compromise on a rescheduled date.

For example, a couple who had planned to be married in June at the Ohio Statehouse instead opted for a rescheduled date in December 2021, said Shannon Pruzinsky, the special-events manager for the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board.

"For the most part, everyone seems happy that we're able to accommodate them as much as possible," Pruzinsky said. "It should be a smooth transition; it'll just be a little different than what we're used to."

The financial hit of venues closing for receptions -- especially in the prime wedding season between March and June -- was a chain reaction affecting service industries, including florists, chefs, photographers and musicians, Brooks said.

"It's a deep wound, but we're thankful that we're now able to reopen," Brooks said. "There's a bandage but a deep scar, and we'll heal over time."

At Jorgensen Farms in New Albany, which had 84 weddings canceled or postponed, the financial loss is expected to reverberate for two years, said Val Jorgensen, founder and CEO. Still, she's confident the business will recover, she said.

"I am optimistic that people will enjoy celebrating with family and friends," Jorgensen said. "I believe they will cherish their wedding-day celebration more than ever."

For the Stewards -- Casandra, who works in human resources, and Andrae, who works in information technology -- the upheaval didn't detract from their celebration of love.

"There was also something very special about still honoring our vows in the midst of the pandemic," Casandra Steward said. "It was still really important for us to honor our love for each other -- it's the one thing you can truly count on."

elagatta@dispatch.com

@EricLagatta