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Wine Country wedding sector pivots to small ceremonies, livestreaming nuptials

Marina Kagawa and Stephen Kleshinski were determined to have their wedding this spring, the season marking nine years together as a couple. So once it became clear they would have to cancel their planned nuptials at the Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma due to the coronavirus pandemic, they decided to hold a last-minute ceremony at their home in the East Bay city of Fremont.

Only the couple’s immediate family, an officiant and a small camera crew were on hand for the backyard wedding on a sunny afternoon in late May. Another 125 guests attended the ceremony virtually via Zoom, dialing in from as far as South Korea and Germany.

“It was a wonderful time,” Kagawa said. “The response from everyone was how personable it still was and that it felt like they were still at our wedding.”

The countywide halting of large events and gatherings to curb the spread of the virus has forced thousands of couples to cancel or postpone their Sonoma County spring and summer weddings. That has crippled the once-booming local wedding sector, which last year hosted over 3,300 events totaling an estimated $114 million in revenue, according to the Wedding Report, an Arizona-based market research firm.

In June, the state and county health departments officially cleared the way for scaled-back marriage ceremonies like Kagawa’s and Kleshinski’s to resume. In turn, some in the Wine Country wedding industry are aiming to rebound from a three-month shutdown by pivoting to small, socially distant ceremonies.

Maryssa Souza, owner Save The Date Weddings and Events in Sonoma, has had to postpone roughly half of the 50 or so weddings she had on the books for spring and summer to next year. For couples who decide they’d still like to get married this year, she’s offering a $5,000 “modest minimony” package for ceremonies of 25 guests or fewer.

The deal includes a florist, photographer, and DJ to play music during the ceremony, as well as the option to livestream the event to family and friends who are unable to attend.

“We’re trying to make it a fun thing for our couples,” Souza said. “It’s so stressful having to postpone and replan everything, and if we have this package already structured, it’s so much easier for them to hop on board and let us do the rest.”

The county’s revised public health emergency order, which aligns with the state guidance for religious services and cultural ceremonies, allows for both indoor and outdoor wedding ceremonies, as long as attendees follow physical distancing and hygiene requirements and wear face coverings at all times.

Indoor weddings must be limited to 25% capacity of the venue or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower. There is no set attendance limit for outdoor weddings, which can be held at any public or private setting, but guests from different households must keep at least 6 feet apart.

While wedding ceremonies are allowed, receptions, parties or post-ceremony gatherings of any size are prohibited. Food and drink services also are not allowed, and only vendors that are “necessary to the ceremony” can be on hand during weddings, according to county health officials.

County health officials gave the go-ahead last month for nuptials even though COVID-19 cases were on the rise, and have not retreated despite a sharp case spike the past two weeks.

In an email, county health department spokesperson Rohish Lal said couples should keep the number of wedding attendees as small as possible, and ceremonies as short as possible, to guard against spreading the virus.

To help keep everyone safe during her weddings, Souza has ordered custom-colored face masks for guests.

“If someone is wearing a green mask, that means it’s OK to approach the person and have a conversation,” she said. “If it’s a yellow mask, then they’re being cautious, and if you’re wearing a red mask, it’s a ’please stay away’ situation.”

Souza said she plans to hold outdoor ceremonies at private homes and at two local venues, including the Gloria Ferrer Winery in Sonoma, which opened its tasting room at 25% capacity last month.

Colleen Patten, private events manager at the winery, said she will start by limiting events to just 10 attendees.

“Right now, we’re being very conservative with those parameters,” Patten said. “My plan is to be prepared for all different phases (of reopening).”

Samar Hattar, a wedding planner and owner of Petaluma’s Blissful Events, has two socially distant weddings in the works, including a virtual ceremony and reception with no guests. The livestreamed reception will include music for a remote dance party, instructions for guests to prepare a cocktail at home and a virtual photo booth where they can snap selfies with their phone or laptop.

“We’re making the experience still really fun without people feeling like they need to leave their homes,” Hattar said.

Tony Muzzin, a DJ and owner of Nor Cal Pro Sounds in Cloverdale, has organized a handful of Zoom parties for couples whose weddings were canceled this year. He expects livestreaming to become commonplace at wedding ceremonies and receptions into the future.

“It's something I see being incorporated in weddings even when we return to normalcy,” Muzzin said. “Everyone has a grandparent or someone who can’t make their wedding. This is a way for them to still share the experience.”

Like most local wedding vendors, Pedy Lawson, owner of Pedy’s Petals flower shop in Santa Rosa, has been hit hard by the shutdown of events and gatherings. She’s had 70 weddings postponed until late fall at the earliest.

Still, Lawson has received a half dozen requests for more intimate ceremonies. While she’s happy for the work, those orders are small compared to the many Wine Country weddings that normally buy her floral arrangements.

“It’s just a bridal bouquet, corsage and boutonniere,” she said of the smaller orders. “I haven’t done any centerpieces for those.”

Karen Payne, lead event planner at Preferred Sonoma Caterers in Petaluma, is hoping to start delivering packaged meals to wedding ceremonies once she gets approval from the county. As business dried up during the pandemic, her company has gained experience preparing packaged meals by donating to local police departments and other groups.

“If we can just take a baby step forward, that will lead to better things down the road,” she said.

Even with the growing interest in socially distant marriage ceremonies, local wedding planners and vendors say most couples would rather wait until they’re allowed to go through with their full wedding plans.

Amanda Vineyard, marketing and event planner at Milestone Events Groups, which books weddings at 10 wineries and venues in Sonoma and Napa counties, has had discussions about hosting smaller ceremonies but is focused on rescheduling hundreds of weddings for 2021.

“The virtual experience definitely doesn’t substitute for (a large wedding),” Vineyard said. “Everybody wants to proceed with plans as they intended.”

That means if the pandemic is under control by next spring, the wedding industry can look forward to an extremely busy run.

“We’re basically combining two years into one,” Vineyard said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

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