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Dispatches from a Pandemic

‘I received an email from clients demanding their deposit back’: Coronavirus took a bite out of the wedding industry — but is this force majeure or force of government?

‘The coronavirus exposed a weakness almost universally across the wedding and event industry: legal concerns during a pandemic’

'Providing emotional support during stressful times is one of my favorite aspects of the job,' writes wedding photographer Justin McCallum.

Julius Motal Photography

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I’m used to crying at my job.

That isn’t the norm for most people and, thankfully, it’s not due to some toxic environment or abusive boss.

It’s because I’m a total sap, and that trait — among many others — led me to become a wedding photographer. While shooting, I’m used to tearing up behind my camera during a heartfelt toast or sobbing at gut-wrenching vows.

‘A simple correspondence shouldn’t usually result in an emotional breakdown, but things hit a little differently in the age of coronavirus.’

But three weeks into a stay-at-home order due to COVID-19, my job had me weeping for a whole new reason: I received an email from clients demanding their deposit back. A simple correspondence shouldn’t result in an emotional breakdown, but things hit a little differently in the age of coronavirus.

I was prepared for another postponement, cancellation or “What do we do?!” email, since I had already received dozens of those from clients I was scheduled to work with this year. Those weren’t a burden, because providing emotional support during stressful times is one of my favorite aspects of the job.

But this message came after I had lost more than $14,000 of income that I was supposed to earn over the next six weeks.

As state decrees and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance prohibited large gatherings, all of my spring weddings had been pushed back months, if not outright canceled, and with them went any hope of receiving their final payments. The pandemic also completely dried up all leads and follow-ups from couples still in the booking process, who understandably didn’t want to commit during the outbreak.

Making matters worse, the economic shutdown came after months of living off of clients’ deposits and retainers during the off-season. Our industry survives during the winter months on deposits paid to hold places in our work calendars. With less money in our savings accounts and more credit-card debt, we are anxious to get back to regular work come spring.

‘I had no idea how my business would operate again. I had no idea if the career I had spent a decade building would be useless in the post-COVID-19 world.’

In my case, this one email was asking for more than half of my checking-account balance. It felt like a personal attack that hit me right in the stomach, leaving me breathless.

This is not to say that most of us are operating businesses on the blade of a knife. I am usually very secure in my business operations. With a deeply personalized client experience, regular check-ins to set expectations, and what I thought was an ironclad contract that stipulates — among other things — the industry standard of non-refundable deposits, I had very few worries going into the pandemic.

However, the coronavirus exposed a weakness almost universally across the wedding and event industry: legal concerns during a pandemic.

The best among us already included clauses in our contracts regarding esoteric legal concepts like force majeure and impossibility, which are meant to protect wedding professionals and clients in cases of emergencies or extenuating circumstances that prevent an event from occurring.

These contractual safeguards are rarely tested, and included just in case those rare tragedies occur. But the unprecedented shutdown of society as a whole has never been legally considered or tested, and leaves many people worried about the limits or loopholes of these protections.

Crystal Lily Photography for Justin McCallum

‘Without clearly stipulated language in signed agreements, many wedding vendors feel exposed to the will of their clients and fear exposure to COVID-19.’

The gray area around whether force majeure (usually reserved for natural disasters) or force of government is preventing large gatherings is sure to be tested in courts after the shutdown, and those decisions could find wedding professionals liable for not performing services during the pandemic.

Without clearly stipulated language in signed agreements, many wedding vendors feel exposed to the will of their clients and fear exposure to COVID-19 while being forced to work. Officials in the Oklahoma Department of Commerce have argued that wedding businesses are essential services that must operate now.

While industry players like TheKnot and HoneyBook rushed to provide legal webinars as support to wedding professionals, experts on those calls only confirmed the uncertainty of any legal safety nets we relied upon. Not only had we lost income, we now feared legal battles with unhappy clients in the future.

Read more ‘Dispaches from a Pandemic’ here.

So I sat on my couch, crying into my laptop keyboard over my newfound insecurity. I had no idea how to support myself or pay my bills. I had no idea how my business would operate again. I had no idea if the career I had spent a decade building would be useless in the post-COVID-19 world.

And as I sat there crying, I realized I was sad not just for myself, but for all of my couples who had their dreams dashed and months of planning seemingly put to waste. With many venues and vendor businesses likely to shutter during the outbreak, it’s unclear what investments “soonly-weds” can even expect to have on the other side of the pandemic.

‘One client said their proactive choice to reorient their wedding to a smaller, more corona-conscious model in the fall meant they lost $17,000.’

One client told me that their proactive choice to reorient their wedding to a smaller, more corona-conscious model in the fall meant they lost $17,000 in nonrefundable deposits alone. And even then, with estimates of extended social distancing and guests likely hesitant to travel, weddings that do happen after the outbreak are likely to look and feel very different. Couples planning weddings are mourning, and those of us who make it our jobs to celebrate with them are similarly distraught.

My tears were also for my colleagues who had expressed similar concerns on the countless group text threads and Zoom ZM, -0.01% calls launched to address the coronavirus. Even in my precarious financial situation, I knew I was better off than colleagues who had recently left full-time work to start their photography studios or musicians who had to lay off their band mates after years of playing together.

Julius Motal Photography

As clients shift dates to the fall and even into 2021, my fellow vendors and I have questioned how we could hope to make a living when our availability on popular wedding dates disappears. Couples traditionally plan weddings on only 26 days out of the entire calendar year: Saturdays and holiday weekends from late spring through early fall.

With pre-existing clients rescheduling for those popular times, we will have little or no space to bring in new clients. Some wedding vendors are combating this by charging a premium to reschedule for popular wedding dates, while others are encouraging couples to consider weekday weddings.

Meanwhile, every bit of relief supposedly offered to us felt out of reach after hundreds of calls to unemployment services went unanswered, and many Payment Protection Program loans went to large companies over actual small businesses. I cried for all of us.

Eventually, I picked myself up and responded to my clients, who were understanding of the situation. We worked something out regarding their deposit.

Although we’re still in this plague of uncertainty and financial instability, I am comforted by a hopeful refrain being used by my wedding-industry colleagues: Love is not canceled. I look forward to returning to love when this is all over, and crying because of my job for the right reasons.

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