Delta Variant Could Impact Fall Event Season

The Philander Chase Knox Estate in Malvern. (Courtesy of Martin Reardon Photography)

For big event planners, it feels like March 2020 all over again.

With the delta variant in the air, couples and families are considering postponing or downsizing their weddings and bar or bat mitzvahs.

So, just like they did after the pandemic broke out, venues, planners, caterers and florists are taking it “day by day.”

As of now, the much-anticipated, jam-packed fall 2021 schedule — the season that’s supposed to make up for 2020 cancellations — is still on. But vaccination or test ultimatums, and masks for those who opt for tests over vaccinations, seem more likely by the day.

Postponements and downsizings are also possible again if positivity rates in Philadelphia and suburban counties surpass 5%, which the CDC considers dangerous.

“We’re definitely getting nervous,” said Michelle Durinzi, the marketing director for Robert Ryan Catering in Collegeville, which also operates three wedding and bar/bat mitzvah venues in the suburbs. “We’d be silly not to after the past year.”

According to Durinzi, the company’s October schedule is the busiest in its 29-year history, with 41 weddings.

Due to cancellations, in 2020 Robert Ryan’s revenue plummeted $2 million compared to a normal year. Revenue is still down about $1.5 million for 2021 due to COVID capacity limits from the first half of the year.

Half of the company’s events for 2021 are booked for September and October. All are going to be open to capacity crowds of more than 125 people…at least for now.

“We’ll just keep crossing our fingers,” Durinzi said. “We’ll see what comes and address it when it comes up.”

Some owners and managers, though, are not waiting to make contingency plans.

At the Artesano Gallery in Philadelphia, Jewish owners Jaime and Mildred Kaplan will soon meet with their event manager, Talia Kassie, to decide on official delta variant protocols for their packed September and October schedule.

The facility already requires employees to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test from the past 72 hours before each shift. Then, when they are on duty, all unvaccinated employees need to wear masks.

Kassie said she is already starting to ask couples to make the same requests of their wedding guests. Most are happy to do it to keep their weddings on schedule. Some, though, have already postponed their big days.

The event manager wants Philadelphia to implement public restrictions, like New York City’s proof of vaccination requirement for indoor activities, to take some of the pressure off of venues.

“No one wants to be that venue that becomes the super spreader,” she said. “But we don’t want to lose business, either.”

Susan Norcross, owner of The Styled Bride, plans Jewish and non-Jewish weddings in Philadelphia, the Main Line and New Jersey.

In a normal year, she books 20 to 30 weddings. In 2020, she did just six, and most were micro-weddings with 12-20 guests. This year, she is on track to throw more than 30 celebrations.

“I’ve lost count,” Norcross said.

She also said she’s not too worried. The fall of 2021 is different from the spring of 2020.

After the pandemic broke out, the safest choice was to postpone big events. But with the vaccine, it’s possible to pull off big parties even with the delta variant and perhaps some restrictions.

Norcross has five weddings in August, and only one has seen a drop-off in confirmed attendees due to the delta variant. Many of The Styled Bride’s couples have all vaccinated guests. And, for the most part, her partner vendors’ employees are all vaccinated.

Some couples that don’t have fully vaccinated guest lists are starting to ask Norcross about rapid testing.

“That’s the other thing: You can ask guests to be rapid-tested,” she said. “You can do due diligence to see the family members and friends that you’re going to see.”

But Norcross acknowledged that, just like in March 2020, we still don’t know what’s to come.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, is warning that a new variant, one that has proved adept at evading COVID vaccines, may emerge if more Americans don’t get vaccinated. To date, about half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to CDC numbers.

“I can’t speculate,” Norcross said. “But I do think over the next several months, this is going to be a new normal for us as we try to figure out what this looks like in the hospitality industry.”

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