Gainesville’s wedding industry began the year preparing for “Wedding Christmas,” a period of heightened business from late December to late May. Instead, the season ushered in cancellation after cancellation as COVID-19 spread.
Alisha Alsbrook, the owner of The Wedding Cycle, a local bridal shop, said she began to feel the changes in February.
Shipments of wedding dresses began to take longer to arrive – nearly four weeks longer. Requests for wedding planning and officiating decreased by 70 percent, and nearly 80 percent of scheduled events were canceled.
Alsbrook closed the shop for three weeks in March to disinfect it, but business still hasn’t returned to normal. The store is only open to groups no larger than five who made online appointments ahead of time. Employees wear masks and gloves, and customers are asked to do the same, she said.
All of the dresses are covered in plastic. Only stylists and brides can look through the gowns.
Alsbrook said she has tried to see the light despite the chaos. As a registered minister, she’s performed two backyard wedding ceremonies over the past seven weeks. The ceremonies were limited to 10 people, but computers were set up by the couples to share their special moment through Zoom.
Her advice for couples during the pandemic: Focus on why you’re getting married.
“You can always have a party, you can always renew your vows, you can always get together and go on a vacation,” Alsbrook said. ”But being with the one person that you love unconditionally will always be the reason why you’re getting married.”
Keith Watson has owned Keith Watson Events, a local event and wedding planning service, for 18 years. He said the pandemic has had drastic effects on his business.
The business had six weddings reschedule for fall and winter, three downsize to social-distancing-style ceremonies, and one cancel entirely.
Despite changes to his business, Watson continues to offer his expertise.
On April 30, the Alachua County Clerk of Court’s office offered a special drive-thru deal: $30 weddings for couples whose plans were disrupted by COVID-19.
Watson and his team heard about the event that morning and immediately gathered to help. The staff gathered at noon and made 35 flower arrangements to be donated, Watson said.
Inspired by the event, he started his own version: the drive-in wedding. In a May 6 Facebook post, Keith Watson Events announced a ceremony package that allows 15 to 20 guests to watch the couple tie the knot from their cars.
“We have a loading dock, so I thought we could decorate it like a wedding venue,” Watson said. “We could have 20 cars of friends and family drive up to watch the wedding for an hour or so, take photographs and be socially distanced and safe.”
Couples can choose from four theme packages: classic, 1970s, country or Vegas.
“The fun thing is that it offers to all ages,” he said. “A couple having their second or third wedding who wants to relive their times in the ‘70s or ‘80s can have a disco ball turning and Elton John. If a couple loves Vegas, Elvis can officiate your wedding.”
While Watson’s business has struggled because of the virus, he believes the drive-in wedding will have bookings soon.
Christine Plumley, a Gainesville freelance wedding photographer, said her business has also struggled since March due to cancellations and rescheduling.
Nevertheless, one couple that was unable to reschedule opted for a drive-up wedding at Clark Plantation in June.
Clark Plantation, located in Newberry, has been rebuilding since a fire damaged the location’s main building in February, Plumley said. However, the venue is expected to be ready for drive-up ceremonies this summer.
“As long as you're marrying the right person, how you're marrying them, how big the crowd is, where it is, and what time of year should not matter,” Plumley said.