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When COVID-19 ruins the wedding, couples can pay the price

Most of the 1 million weddings in 2020 have been moved or downsized. When a reception is scuttled, however, some couples are finding they can't get their deposits back.

Wedding gowns line the walls of Lovely Bride Philadelphia in Philadelphia, Pa. on Thursday, August 27, 2020. Owner Ivy Solomon noted that while some wedding vendors have suffered heavily due to the coronavirus pandemic, many brides still want a gown, regardless of the size of the wedding celebration.
Wedding gowns line the walls of Lovely Bride Philadelphia in Philadelphia, Pa. on Thursday, August 27, 2020. Owner Ivy Solomon noted that while some wedding vendors have suffered heavily due to the coronavirus pandemic, many brides still want a gown, regardless of the size of the wedding celebration.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Weddings are supposed to be about love and togetherness. But when too much togetherness could violate the law, couples must decide whether to hold on to their dreams or go a different way.

The wedding website The Knot estimates that one million weddings in the United States this year will be affected by the pandemic. From the start of the restrictions in mid-March, many couples rescheduled to 2021 or even 2022. Others agreed to smaller affairs on or near their chosen date, perhaps under tents newly erected outside the catering venues. Some others have thrown caution to the wind, opting for a party they hope will not end up on the news someday.

Also out there are couples who drastically downsized, exchanging vows in a backyard with family, a few masked friends, and a Zoom setup. The dream of a reception had faded into the reality of an uncertain future.

Where there is talk of love, there is also talk of money. The pandemic has a steep price tag.

The market-research company IBISWorld estimates that downsizing, postponements, and cancellations due to COVID-19 will cost wedding and events companies over $670 million — a tiny fraction of an estimated $74 billion U.S. industry, but a loss nonetheless.

Fewer tux rentals. Smaller photo packages. And, in some cases, scuttled receptions, which have left some couples demanding refunds of their down payments with caterers, typically at least $5,000.

» READ MORE: Brides say yes to the dress, even as pandemic disrupts wedding plans

Online wedding forums are abuzz with couples who contend that they have been offered new dates that either do not work or are unrealistic because no one knows when life will return to normal. The deposits are nonrefundable, as the contracts state, and the law is generally on the caterers' side, even though neither the couples nor the caterers are responsible for the disruption.

“While we are anxious to do everything we can to get everyone as close to their dreams and plans as we can, the reality of the situation is that we are also suffering in this pandemic and simply do not have the means to make everyone whole,” said Jeffrey Miller, whose JAM Catering is one of the region’s largest off-premises caterers, with exclusive rights to 17 venues in the Philadelphia area, including the John James Audubon Center, Tyler Arboretum, and Waterloo Village. Weddings are all JAM does.

Disrupted plans

Nicholas Sandercock, a lawyer based in Allentown, filed a writ of summons against JAM on behalf of a client. “When you contract for a wedding, you give them a chunk of money,” said Sandercock. “You would assume that the money was being reserved for your wedding, and it seems they’re living on that.”

This rankles Miller. “People have a misperception of the business,” Miller said. “I can’t fault them. What they don’t see is the money we’ve spent getting ready for their event.” He employs a staff of 100, including bookkeepers, kitchen workers, warehouse workers, and groundskeepers, all of whom he says are directly involved.

Same for Joe Volpe, who owns Cescaphe, a large Philadelphia on-premises catering company. At the signing of the contract, Cescaphe charges a planning fee — not a “deposit” — of $5,000. Unlike most caterers, Cescaphe does not require installments; the balance is due a week before the wedding.

Volpe said nearly all of his 350 wedding clients in 2020 at such venues as Vie, the Lucy, Tendenza, and Cescaphe had moved or shrunk their affairs to what he called “microweddings" of fewer than 25 people.

Miller also estimated that virtually all of his clients — about 400 couples this year — had held or moved their affairs.

It has worked out for Jackie Martinez and Phil Headen, who had booked their Curtis Arboretum wedding, scheduled for Oct. 18, 2020, through JAM.

They had no complaints about sliding their reception to June 6, 2021. “We felt like [June] would be a better fit for us because we have people traveling from all over and the variables are so great,” said Martinez, 32, who is chief of staff for a director at the National Institutes of Health. Headen, 30, is a project manager for a software company. They said they didn’t have to pay a surcharge to clinch a Sunday in June.

Sarah Morrison, 31, a podiatric surgeon, and Wylie Belasik, 36, who owns a gym, agreed to move their JAM wedding at the American Swedish Museum from Sept. 6, 2020, to Aug. 13, 2021, when they realized that their 140-person wedding would be capped at 50 people. They had a small ceremony on their previously scheduled day. “I guess we’ll renew our vows” next August, Morrison said. “It’s a Friday the 13th. What more could go wrong?”

Refunds on hold

Miller said JAM has been in the red. Revenue for the first six months of 2020 tallied nearly $447,000 while expenses totaled nearly $2.9 million, according to an accounting he provided. The company received $1,050,000 in Paycheck Protection Program loans, he said, but it still forced him to choose. “Do I pay for [100 employees’] health insurance [a total of $130,501], or provide larger refunds for our couples?” Miller asked. He said he has given out a few hundred thousand dollars in partial refunds — with the understanding that cashing the checks cancels the contracts. Miller also said couples could apply money toward a future event.

Theresa Edler, whose daughter Caroline balked when she learned that her JAM wedding at Tyler Arboretum would be moved outdoors to a tent and that indoor dancing would be limited to 25 people, scoffed at Miller’s explanation. “What this is saying to me is, ‘It’s been a horrible year for everyone, and because JAM has to maintain their level of service to the industry, we will take the deposits from all of the couples involved and utilize them to sustain our operations in the future.’ ”

» READ MORE: Can I get married during the coronavirus?

Caroline Edler, 29, and Christian Benincasa, 28, were married Sept. 3 at Tyler, which had retained $1,000 of their deposit, and had a reception for 23 people in the Edlers' backyard in Havertown, remaining under the 25-person limit for gatherings. JAM still has their deposit of $4,000.

Benincasa filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, one of 20 lodged recently against wedding caterers, a state spokesperson said Sept. 22.

Although the office’s Bureau of Consumer Protection mediates disputes between consumers and businesses, it cannot compel a company to issue a refund and can step in only if it feels that the law is being violated. JAM cited the contract language in its response to the complaint.

In the case of Barbara A. Penny and Lawrence F. Delp, whose wedding was scheduled for Aug. 14, 2020, at John J. Audubon Center, it’s a substantial deposit.

Penny, 67, a lawyer, and Delp, 69, a retired banker, paid $14,475 to JAM in a series of installments starting March 3, about two weeks before the coronavirus restrictions began. The couple kept up payments. In mid-July, as government restrictions mounted, Penny and Delp said they realized that they were putting their guests at too much risk. They said they were offered restricted midweek dates in 2021 at the Audubon Center and other select JAM venues, but not preferred weekend dates — even though availability existed — unless they paid an additional $6,000.

Of the $8,625 paid to JAM for catering, the company offered a refund of $3,500 if a letter of release was executed. If the couple refused to sign the letter, JAM’s refund would be $2,375. Audubon returned the facility fee, $5,850, in full.

Penny and Delp were married in their backyard on Aug. 9. “The amount of work performed on our wedding event equated to two phone conversations, a couple of emails, and a tasting dinner for two,” they wrote in an accounting of the expenses. They said they would like a refund of all but $1,000. They have not heard anything further from JAM.

Tom Wingert, 33, a marketing manager for Lululemon, and Anastasia Wohar, 34, an attorney, are planning a creative spin, if they need to.

Their black-tie wedding for 200 people was on the books for Aug. 8, 2020, at the Horticulture Center in Fairmount Park. In April, Wohar wrote to Constellation Catering to ask for remedies. “I don’t see a celebration with social distancing and a pandemic going on,” said Wohar. “To me, that’s not a wedding.” They chose a new date for the reception — Aug. 21, 2021 — but got married on Aug. 29, 2020, with 14 people.

But what happens if next August it doesn’t feel safe to have a celebration?

“There’s two options,” she said. “We would either cut down our guest list to the appropriate number, or — and I don’t want to use the word “sell,” but we would try to sell our contract to somebody who would want a Saturday date in August and would be comfortable with it. That way we, as in us and the venue, won’t be losing any money. If the venue is open to it, we could transfer the contract to a new couple.”