The wedding restrictions in Ontario have been forever changing for the last 13 months and to say that they’re confusing is an understatement. We’ve seen wedding restrictions as strict as 5 people for a ceremony and as relaxed as 50 people at a reception. When it comes to wedding restrictions in Ontario, what does that mean for 2021 couples and on a greater level – what does that mean for the wedding industry as a whole? This article is both a summary of where we are now as well, behind-the-scenes information that’s crucial for couples to know, and a summary of how COVID is impacting the wedding industry, particularly photographers.
I have a unique perspective on this since not only am I a wedding photographer, I also have an active background as a healthare provider. With that, I want to preface by saying that you should always get formal information from proper goverment sources, especially regarding restrictions. There are a lot of people out there who have made quick reference charts or even memes in an attempt to help summarize information but with how quickly things change, these third party info sources can become dated and incorrect. As much as the government websites are dry and boring to read, you need to do it to go right to the source. At the time of writing this article, I’ve been using the “Zones and Restrictions” page which links further to:
- Enhanced public safety measures
- Covid-19 guidance for indoor/outdoor events
- Full regulations/laws for Ontario O. Reg. 82/20
EDITED TO ADD: The new “steps” framework was released and it’s no longer the colour-coded system and is based on vaccination rate. Some of the information below has been updated to reflect this.
Currently Ontario is well into it’s 3rd wave of COVID, ICUs are near capacity and a massive field hospital has been set up at Sunnybrook in order to provide care for the surge of patients they fear is coming.
What are Wedding Restrictions in Ontario right now?
As of May 27th, 2021, wedding ceremonies are:
- Ontario is currently in a stay-at-home order and weddings are limited to 5 individuals, outdoors, socially distanced.
It’s important to note that re-opening guidelines refer often to ceremonies, not to receptions. The government considers receptions the “social” aspect while the actual marriage ceremony falls under the “religious celebrations” part which has different protections. The best way to think of this is: you don’t need to have a WEDDING in order to get MARRIED. Being keenly aware of this wording will help you understand what you are or are not allowed to do.
For the wedding reception part:
- Currently not allowed during stay-at-home orders
Physical distancing and other public health measures are required for reception/social events when they begin again.
How is COVID impacting the wedding industry?
There’s been nothing more disastrous than COVID for the wedding and events industry. While some countries may be fairing a bit better, the long, drawn-out attempt to mitigate COVID in Ontario – a province that is “open for business” – has lead to countless business closures and many more on the brink.
While most wedding vendors were able to make it through 2020 with their business still (technically) alive, if 2021 proves to be a repeat of 2020 the wedding industry will be permanently scarred. While the damage may heal over a series of years, a collapse in the wedding industry must be avoided at all cost as it will impact couples just as much as COVID did. No couple wants to face vendors who have filed for insolvency and have to replan and choose a new date again all while losing thousands more of their wedding budget. Is that a scary concept? Absolutely – and while my intentions are not to write anytyhing geared to purposefully scare, the reality of how COVID has impacted the wedding industry cannot be ignored.
Prior to COVID, Sunnybrooks Vaughan Estates was a luxury wedding venue. This photo was taken in 2018; a through-the-doors look at the couple practicing their first dance under the chandelier in the main ballroom.
Two years later, Vaughan Estates has permanently closed it’s doors and that same chandelier now illuminates cubicles where COVID testing is performed.
In addition to risks of vendors filing for insolvency, a fair percentage of wedding vendors now have a plan to ‘get out of the game’. Wedding planners, photographers, videographers and many other vendors have realized that tying their income to mass gatherings of people is an incredible risk and many are looking at either expanding their skills into other areas aside from weddings or starting a new career altogether. When things return to ‘normal’, whether that’s in 2022 or 2023, the wedding industry will not be the same. Sure we placed 2019 on pause, but when we hit play again, the same businesses and individuals won’t be there anymore.
Should couples postpone or roll with the wedding restrictions in Ontario?
I personally believe that couples should roll with the restrictions that are in place and I feel that way for a few reasons:
- A marriage and a wedding are very different things. You can get married and start the rest of your life with the person that you love without a 200 person party and a late night buffet.
- …there’s no guarantee that 2022 will be “normal” either
Will Weddings be ‘normal’ in 2022?
I know I said that there’s no guarantee that 2022 will be ‘normal’ and here’s why:
- Normal is different for everyone – so it’s really not a good measure
- Children will not be vaccinated until throughout 2022
- We don’t know what effect variants will have and if more volatile variants will become prevalent
Some folks can define normal as having a group of 40 people with no masks and lots of dancing, others may define normal as having 200 people in a room even if masks are required and others may consider ‘normal’ to only be achieved once they can get married with 300 people, no masks, lots of dancing AND take a flight to a tropical location the day later for an epic honeymoon that involves no quarantining whatsoever. Normal is a spectrum and what’s normal for you won’t be normal for someone else, so in that sense, some folks may have a ‘normal’ wedding in 2022 but others may not.
In addition to the spectrum of normalcy, it’s important to keep in mind that as of the time of writing this article, Pfizer and Moderns are still studying vaccines on children younger than 12. Only once that data is proven safe and effects have been monitored for a period of time will children be eligible to receive the vaccine. Until kids are vaccinated, any mass gathering that includes children will pose a higher level of risk and therefore physical distancing and mask wearing may still be required.
And this is all assuming that no other more contagious variants emerge over the following months. We were fairing well with the OG COVID and then the B135 and B117 variants came in fast and hard and changed expected timelines and expectations. The same thing could happen again if the virus continues to evolve before the pandemic is controlled by vaccine worldwide.
If you’re wanting to postpone to 2022, you need to understand that there’s absolutely no guarantee that you’ll get a ‘normal’ wedding day. So are you okay going through another 12+ months of wedding planning for a 50/50 chance of normal?
Do all vendors approach COVID the same way?
The two most common things vendors hear now is “…but all my other vendors are issuing full refunds” and “…but all my other vendors are agreeing to fully refund retainers if we choose to postpone” and there’s really only one way to address that:
All wedding vendors may be in the same storm, but we’re all in very different boats. Some have yachts, some have canoes and some are drowning and you cannot compare between them.
COVID retainers are typically non-refundable and we’ve written about that before; but as the pandemic continues to evolve, we are seeing clients ask for contract amendments that are one-sided and no longer mutually beneficial as well as clients asking for small sole proprietor businesses to make the same accommodations that larger businesses with other sources of income are making. I think this is a great opportunity for clients to reflect on the fact that just because various businesses are in the wedding industry doesn’t mean we all operate the same way. I understand clients are frustrated, but in order to build positive business relationships built on respect, we need to stop comparing yachts to canoes.
What do vendors want couples to know?
Vendors have been so busy working to accommodate clients and guide them through wedding restrictions in Ontario for their weddings that many of us haven’t taken the time to ensure our voices are heard. The media is reporting only one-sided, extremely biased stories and often don’t even reach out to the vendors they’re referring to for their side. Everyone’s voices should be heard and there are common and reoccurring themes that I’m seeing discussed within the wedding photography community. These are not necessarily my personal thoughts and feelings, but a summary of overall themes seen amongst peers:
You can’t fish from an empty pond
COVID has been detrimental to the wedding industry and while some vendors may have made exceptions to contracts and policies at the very beginning of COVID, the resources we have now – 13 months later – are extremely limited. Our pond has very few fish left in it and you can’t fish from an empty pond – we don’t have nearly as much to give as we did before; financially and emotionally. Contracts are in place for a reason which leads to…
Read your contracts before you sign them
I can’t say with any certainty where this issue came from, but COVID has shown a fundamental misunderstanding in a large number of couples in regards to how contracts work. You cannot sign a contract and agree to the terms and then try to re-negotiate the terms if the contract is being enforced and you don’t like it. Contracts are there to protect both parties.
Imagine your photographer saying to you “I know you paid $4,000 but I’ve updated my prices and I bought a condo and life is more expensive for me, so I think I have justifiable reason to charge you $5,250 now.” If that happened to you, you’d tell them to GTFO and that you’re only paying what the contract says you should. This is the very same situation, albeit in reverse, as a client saying “I know I booked you after the pandemic started and our wedding isn’t until 7 months from now, but I want to postpone and I want a full refund even though I agreed to a non-refundable retainer.”
Understanding the purpose of a retainer
The retainer does get you a service – and that service is your vendor turning away all other inquiries for your date. Turning away other paying customers is the service that your retainer gets you. This is why retainers are non-refundable. Retainers are not always pre-payment for services, especially if they are lower (<35-40%) and there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding around that.
What has COVID taught me, as a wedding photographer?
COVID has been quite the eye opener and dealing with the constantly changing wedding restrictions in Ontario has been enlightening to say the least. COVID has reinforced that having a solid contract, communication skills to navigate and mitigate potential conflict, and a client base that shares values and ideals with you is the foundation to navigating difficult times with grace and success. But as a photographer, COVID has taught me something even more important:
We need to stop taking our friends and family for granted. We need to appreciate what we have now in lieu of holding out for perfection in the future. Perfection is never guaranteed.
We need to reflect on the fact that marriages don’t need to be associated with “big fancy weddings” to be special. Having the key group of people who are your #1 cheerleaders and closest loved ones is really all you need. Take the time on your wedding day to be with those people; attend your cocktail hour, schedule in chill time and allow yourself the gift of truly being present with your friends and family on your wedding day.
After all, is it really worth holding out for a 200+ person wedding if your first and most prevelant memories of the day are how quickly it went by and how little time you got to actually spend with the people you invited?