Samantha Clark and her fiance, Trent Passwaters, thought their plans were solid for an Oct. 17 wedding in Sanford. The couple from Lebanon booked their venue in February, completed payment in July and were finalizing the head count when they got an email from the event center last week informing the couple their contract was canceled.
The email cited the COVID-19 outbreak associated with a wedding “up North” in early August. Clark was furious and flabbergasted. “We have 54 days to find a venue,” she said by phone, soon after firing off a return email to the Wormwood Center that said, in part, “You have managed to make a day that was supposed to be special to us a nightmare.”
Clark and Passwaters found a new place for the wedding by week’s end, but the fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak tied to an Aug. 7 wedding party at the Big Moose Inn in Millinocket has affected all couples planning late-summer and fall weddings in Maine, as they face questions about liability and responsibility while trying to protect themselves and their guests from the virus. They’re also facing what one bride-to-be called “wedding shaming” on social media for going ahead with their plans.
“We are kind of feeling deflated,” said Andrea Slater of Wells, who plans to marry her fiance, Mike Cook, on Nov. 14 in Wells. They postponed their original wedding from May and cut their guest list to fewer than 50 people from 125. They considered postponing again, until 2021, but there’s no guarantee they could host a larger wedding next spring than this fall, so they are moving forward with a small celebration – and facing whatever judgment comes their way. “A wedding is supposed to be this big, happy celebration, but it is being so harshly looked upon, as opposed to something like a protest,” Slater said. “It really is kind of funny how differently some people perceive (the appropriateness) of a private event like a wedding and a public event like a protest.”
Last week, Maine health officials first suspended the health license of the Big Moose Inn and later reinstated it, as Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew warned of “deadly consequences” associated with uncontrolled gatherings. As of Saturday, 123 people who either attended the Aug. 7 wedding reception or were connected to someone who did had become ill from COVID-19. One woman died. The outbreak, which has drawn national media scrutiny, has spread to the York County Jail and a nursing home in Madison.
In Maine, indoor gatherings are limited to 50 people and outdoor gatherings are limited to 100. Face coverings are required, except when people are eating and drinking, and Lambrew reminded wedding couples and participants that violating those sanctions, including the 6-foot distance rule, is a crime that could result in six months in jail and a fine of $1,000 for individuals or $10,000 for institutions or organizations, as well as the cost of civil damages associated with testing, investigating, contact tracing and otherwise determining the extent of COVID-19 transmission.
Earlier in the week, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, summed up the epidemiological challenges of gatherings most succinctly when he said, “COVID-19 can be the uninvited guest at every single wedding, party or event in Maine.”
Couples, wedding planners and event centers across the state took notice.
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
Nicole Mower, a wedding planner from Kittery, said couples are “freaking out” about the news from Millinocket and adjusting their plans. “It has made it more real, especially in our tiny Maine community,” Mower said. “People are trying to shift and pivot, and that means outdoor events or finally deciding to cut their list quite a bit or just postpone.”
But they need not freak out, she said. She assures couples that if they follow state regulations, take precautions and impress upon guests the importance of compliance, it’s possible to host a safe wedding. But wedding couples and guests have to be flexible and willing to do away with some traditions, like hugs and kisses for the bride and groom – “it’s air hugs and elbow taps instead,” she said – and extended cocktail hours, where guests tend to mingle without masks because of the presence of appetizers and drinks. “Common sense is sometimes difficult once you have a cocktail or two in you,” she said.
She also advises seating people for dinner at tables that are arranged for families or cohorts, so people who have been living or working together can sit together, with masks until food is served, while being spaced out from other seated guests. Gone are the days of large tables of guests sitting together sharing plates of food, Mower said. “We can still have events, as long as people take it seriously,” she said.
She also suggests that couples keep the guest list to 50 even if the wedding is outdoors. “The state guidelines were 50 for a long time until Gov. Mills increased it to 100. But I am telling people, ‘Stick to around 50,’ ” because the fewer people, the safer. “Just because you can have 100 people, that does not mean that if you have 99 you are safe,” she said. “Just keep it small.”
According to eyewitness and media reports, there was little social distancing happening at the Big Moose Inn during the wedding celebration in early August, and the inn was cited for not ensuring 6-foot distancing, exceeding the maximum number of people allowed for an indoor gathering and failing to ask customers for contact information. There were about 60 wedding guests and a total of 109 people in the building during the reception, including other hotel guests, according to the Maine CDC. Most were not wearing masks, one hotel guest told the Portland Press Herald.
Renee Stachmus, event coordinator at Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, said the museum typically hosts 15 to 20 weddings a season, and all but three have canceled or postponed because of the pandemic. The situation in Millinocket “had an emotional effect” on a couple who went through with their wedding plans last weekend and has impacted the wedding plans for the other two weddings on the schedule in September and October, she said. Last weekend’s wedding couple, whom the museum declined to name, reduced their guest list to fewer than 50 people and made changes in seating arrangements and cocktail service. The couples who are getting married coming up will not host dances, Stachmus said. The couple who married last weekend had a dance, but the vast majority of guests departed soon after dinner and only the couple and their families stayed for the dance, she said.
Mower agreed “that dancing in a group can be risky, unless you have all quarantined before the wedding.” In other words, couples and families or groups of roommates can dance together, but it’s important to keep social-distancing rules in place otherwise.
After the outbreak in Millinocket, Maine Maritime Museum began offering a “mircro-wedding” package for up to 20 people, aimed at couples who are scrambling on short notice. “People are having their venues back out on them and are left stranded,” said Katie Spiridakis, marketing and communications manager for the museum. So far, a few people have inquired about the package, she added.
ALL IN THE DETAILS
With a November wedding indoors, Slater and Cook, the couple from Wells, will keep their guest list to fewer than 50 people. Their top priority is making guests feel safe, and they are asking those traveling to Maine to get tested for COVID-19 before coming to the wedding at Village by the Sea. Instead of asking guests if they want beef, chicken or fish for dinner, they are sending wedding details that include information about Maine CDC travel guidelines and links to COVID-19 test sites in Maine.
“It’s kind of ridiculous,” Slater said, describing herself as exasperated. They’ve already postponed once and reduced their guest list by more than half. If they thought they could host their wedding as originally planned in May 2021, they would likely do that, she said. “But why postpone again? We can have 50 people guaranteed in November or an unknown number next year,” she said.
Clark, the bride from Lebanon getting married in October, was willing to do whatever she needed to do to keep her contract with Wormwood Center of Sanford, including cutting the guest list to fewer than 50 people. That is why she was surprised and angry when she learned her contract had been canceled last week. Clark and Passwaters booked their wedding in February, paid a deposit and began drawing up a guest list when the pandemic hit. At the time, Clark said she told the event center they expected about 75 people, though correspondence from the event center suggests Wormwood staff expected far fewer people.
In late July, when Clark paid off the balance, she told Wormwood they were unsure of their guest totals, because they had sent out invitations late as a result of the pandemic and people hadn’t responded yet. She asked about setting up a tent outside, in case more than 50 people planned to attend.
Last week, she followed up with a final count of 85. The next day, she got an email from the event center’s executive director, Jennifer Putnam, saying that Wormwood canceled the contract. In the email, which Clark shared with the Press Herald, Putnam said Wormwood had expected about 35 guests for the wedding party, but, “On the most recent call, you alerted us that 85 people had RSVP’d to attend. Were we even inclined to continue this reservation, we could not legally under Maine law. Further, the contract calls for immediate termination where the property is not available due to any natural disaster, which the COVID crisis certainly qualifies.”
Wormwood is operated by Waban Projects Inc., which provides programs and services to people who need intellectual support. As part of its operation, it rents its campus for weddings, conferences and other events. Putnam declined an interview with the Press Herald to discuss Waban’s liability exposure, but said in a statement, “Waban seeks to ensure the safety of all Mainers, and its decision to cancel outside events is one that was reached after careful consideration, and seems particularly prudent in light of recent news stories.”
Clark told Putnam she was “greatly misinformed” about the original guest-list estimate, and immediately offered to reduce the guest list to less than 50, but to no avail.
She posted a panicked plea for help on the Covid Brides of Maine Facebook page and began re-planning and rebooking. She and Passwaters ended up committing to an Oct. 17 wedding at Scotland Fields in York, with a guest list that is still to be finalized but will likely be around 75 or 80. They are spending much more money than originally planned and will create a safe environment. “We have custom face masks for everyone. Hand sanitizer. Our guests from out-of-state are volunteering to get tested before coming into the state, even though there aren’t many guests from out-of-state. We plan on asking our guests to wear the masks when not eating or drinking, and given that it will be mid-October and in the evening it should not be too inconvenient to do so,” Clark said.
The ceremony will be outside, weather permitting, with dining in a ventilated tent. Seating will be arranged by family and household and in some cases with those who work together. Hand sanitizer will be on every table. Disinfecting wipes will be available for surfaces that will be touched – pens for their guest book, for example – and dancing will be in a barn with doors open. “We are asking for good social distancing and for masks to be worn,” Clark said. “Our goal is participant safety.”
Particularly frustrating for Clark is that she works as a paramedic, and the majority of the couple’s guests are health care workers. “We are all cognizant of how crucial our safety and the safety of others are,” she said, adding that she has been tested for COVID-19 at least 10 times. “It’s simple to protect yourself. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. It takes a little common sense to protect yourself, but destroying wedding days out of fear – out of fear of being held responsible – is the worst part of it.”