The bride wore white and carried a bouquet of plastic flowers, from Amazon. The aisle was from Amazon, too, and so were the fairy lights strung around the chuppah. The wedding party was small: only immediate family and the rabbi. Although rain had been forecast, the weather held, and when 23-year-old student Eliana Amrani, from Chicago, married her boyfriend, 22-year-old Elliot Birn, in her parents’ garden, the sun was shining. As is customary during Jewish weddings, the bride and groom prepared to smash a glass underfoot.
Unable to attend the wedding in person due to the coronavirus shutdown, the couple’s extended family and friends had driven to neighbouring streets, and dialled into the wedding on Zoom or caught it via a YouTube live stream. Cocooned in their cars a safe distance away, they watched on smartphone screens as the couple clasped hands and stamped on the glass. As it shattered, the sound of car horns filled the air. On a laptop, elderly relatives watching the ceremony smiled and waved.
Amrani had initially planned to marry at the Chicago Hilton on 29 March. But on 12 March, the governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker, advised that all large events should be postponed until May. The prospect of having to wait was agonising. “We’re Orthodox Jews,” Amrani explains. “We haven’t lived together! We couldn’t wait. We were dying to get married.” After a night full of tears, the family decided: they would have a backyard wedding on Zoom. The rabbi was willing to do it, as long as it was outdoors.
It was more perfect than Amrani could have hoped. “Before the wedding, I was so upset,” she says. “I couldn’t believe this was my life. Now I don’t regret it. It was so much better than I could have imagined.”
Amrani is one of many whose wedding plans have been thrown into disarray by coronavirus. About 20% of the world’s population is under lockdown. Some of these people will have been planning to wed in the coming months. But for now, normal life is on pause – and any thought of celebrations with family and friends, many of whom may be older and vulnerable, is unthinkable.
If you have spent years planning your perfect wedding, the disruption caused by coronavirus can be a bitter pill to swallow. “I’m coming to terms with it now,” says Debbie Odukoya, 29, a clinical psychologist from London. She was supposed to marry her fiance, Oluchi, 33, over two days in Lagos, Nigeria, in April. Eight hundred guests were scheduled to attend the Nigerian ceremony, followed by a western wedding for 400 guests the following day. Organising not one, but two weddings was a considerable effort. “We spent a whole year literally planning,” Odukoya sighs.
From the beginning of March, guests started pulling out – the airlines had cancelled their flights. But Odukoya still hoped the wedding could go ahead. Then on 18 March, the Nigerian government announced that anyone landing in the country would be subject to supervised isolation for 14 days. The wedding was in less than two weeks. It was over. “I had to go to work that day,” Odukoya says. “It was really hard trying to pull myself together, because I didn’t want to break down.”
Odukoya is thankful that all her vendors and the venue have been willing to rearrange the wedding at no extra cost; she hasn’t lost any money, apart from flights. And her friends have promised to re-book transport, when the time comes. “Everyone has been so nice about it,” she says.
Gem Finn, a 28-year-old communications worker from Uxbridge, London, narrowly avoided ending up out of pocket. She was due to marry her girlfriend, Ali, 28, on 15 May. On 11 March, they went to pay a deposit at the pub where they had been planning to hold their reception. Finn was ready to hand over the money – but Ali urged caution. “She said: ‘Maybe we should think about this,’” Finn says. It was the right decision. “I’m glad she’s the sensible one,” Finn jokes. “She saved us over £1,000.”
When it comes to the logistics of rescheduling a wedding, not everyone is so fortunate. “It’s been incredibly stressful,” says James (not his real name), 27, from West Sussex. He was meant to be getting married at a manor house – he would prefer not to say which one – in June. On 25 March, the venue emailed: weddings through June were cancelled and James was liable to pay 80% of the cost, due to a late-cancellation clause in his contract. The venue recommended that he claim on his insurance, although there is no guarantee it will pay out.
“We were completely devastated,” James says. “Our wedding was cancelled. And then to face a huge bill … To be told we are out of pocket for them cancelling our wedding is bizarre.” After a backlash from James and other couples in a similar predicament, the venue agreed to allow them to rebook. But the experience has been so stressful that James doesn’t want to get married there any more. “It’s left such a bad taste in our mouths,” he says.
Elliot Metson, 30, an admin assistant from Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, was one of the last people to get married in the UK before the lockdown, the day before Boris Johnson announced the measures on 23 March. But getting married with the coronavirus pandemic hanging over you casts a pall over proceedings. In the days leading up to the wedding, people kept dropping out. Metson didn’t blame them. “We understood their concerns,” he says.
Metson and his partner, Hannah, 31, approached the venue, a hotel. “We said: ‘How many more people who are important to us need to cancel before we say: ‘We need to reschedule this?’’” In the end Metson and Hannah got married that Sunday, as planned. As Hannah was getting ready on the morning of her wedding, more guests were texting her saying they couldn’t attend, due to health concerns. “It put a bit of a downer on things,” says Metson.
In the end, just 40 people attended the wedding, about half of the confirmed guest list of 87. It definitely wasn’t ideal – due to the social-distancing guidelines, the Metsons spaced out their wedding guests so much that some tables were half empty – but they are sanguine. “I would have preferred to rearrange it, personally, and my wife would have as well,” he says. “But we don’t have any regrets. It was a nice day for everyone who did turn up and we’re happy to be married now.”
For some, the lockdown has made them reassess what’s important. Isobel Burston, 25, a teacher from Weymouth, Dorset, was due to marry her fiance, Ian, 26, in April. On 16 March, the government banned gatherings of more than 10 people. Burston and Ian sat down to discuss the wedding, to which they had invited 120 guests. “We both had a little cry,” she says. “But we knew we couldn’t ask people to put their health at risk.” The venue agreed to postpone the wedding, at no cost. A few days later, reports began to emerge that a national lockdown could be imminent.
“I turned to Ian and said: ‘I would like to marry you,’” Burston recalls. “‘How about this weekend?’ He looked at me like I was mad. And then we had this moment of realisation, like: if we want to marry, we have to do it now.” The following day, Ian called the registrar, who agreed to perform a ceremony at short notice. Their original venue gave them the use of a small room. Burston ordered an Asos dress for next-day delivery, and Ian raided their local supermarket for flowers.
On 21 March, with only immediate family present and grandparents dialled in via FaceTime, the registrar married them. Afterwards, they ate a spread of quiche and sausage rolls that Burston’s mum had picked up from M&S, and took some photos on the beach.
“It sounds so cheesy, but as soon as I walked in and saw Ian there and our family, I thought: ‘What did I spend all this time worrying about?’” Burston says. “It felt super-irrelevant. What was present that day was joy and love. It didn’t feel like we’d missed out on anything. In a way, maybe it was more special.”
For now, all plans of a honeymoon are on hold. “It’s an interesting way to start married life,” Burston jokes. “Spending 24/7 together in a tiny flat.”